January 3, 2011KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Why We Chose ItBy Tyler Meier.

It’s my pleasure to speak up next in the second installment of this series, which gives KR‘s editors a chance to talk about a piece that KR has published. I’m going to talk about the poem “Why We Must Have Canonical Hours and Islands” by Elizabeth T. Gray Jr., a poem that is currently up on KROnline. Be sure to click through–it’s shorter than a sonnet, and I promise absolutely worth the minute.

Tyler MeierKROnline, if you haven’t seen it yet, is a distinct online publishing space on the KR website. We present work there that complements the print KR and the magazine’s considerable history, but that also honors our commitment to discovering new writers, to challenging our aesthetic sensibilities, and to publishing the best material that we can find. It is a space where we perhaps take a few more editorial chances. KROnline features some crossover material with the print magazine, but mostly publishes exclusive new content, like this poem, that we want to share with our web audience. We update it biweekly. If you don’t currently, consider making it a weekly stop on your web rounds to see each update.

Being an editor is being in a version of the risk business. For us, a good editorial choice means relevance and readership. Gray’s poem deserves both. It is structured as an answer poem. The title presents a premise laden with the urgency of an absolute: “Why We Must Have Canonical Hours and Islands.” The 12 line poem that follows, with strong iambic rhythms and sweetened by end rhymes, presents an answer. The title is some of the pleasure trajectory–who can’t be compelled to read on? I certainly wanted to know “why we must” after reading that title. And I still want to know each time I reread the title, even after reading the poem twenty or so times now. It radiates a bit of magic down to the stanzas below.

The rest of the pleasure trajectory of the poem: our electronic submission system allows editors to comment on material with notes as they pass them on to other editors. I noted that the poem felt like it was “half Yeats, half atmosphere.” Half Yeats from the carefulness of the poem’s metrical movement, the rhyme, but mostly Yeats from the rich sound lacing the lines: “that draws us across an expanse of sea or year” has an incantatory march to those strong vowel sounds that does draw us across the line, if not those vaster expanses. It’s hard to say it out loud and not feel like you are singing. “Or this sere call, through mottled glass, of gull.” The line could be a primer for those learning their vowel sounds for the first time. Or a romp for anyone who delights in using his or her mouth.

Half atmosphere, too: for the way the poem responds to the title’s question with a series of four answers: “to resist,” “to meet,” “ to allow,” and “to pull us.” As if we begin defiant, then open-minded, then permissive, then resigned to the fate the poem projects: “to pull us past the mainland’s edge/where the great beasts stand in gold and there/break open for us abbeys in the air.” The poem suggests that we must cycle through an abnegation of will, where power is transferred out from the individual and into what the poem presents as the nature of things. Fitting that this figurative movement is literally represented by the beasts that break open “abbeys in the air,” that ruby of a final line that has twice the closure force from the end rhyme that concludes it. And what to make of those great beasts that alter the atmosphere, the “winged lions,” bursting open the richness of the world, so that what we breathe takes on the holiness of abbeys?

For a poem that responds as an answer to its title, and yet leaves me ultimately asking questions–I might be more hesitant about this poem if it wasn’t so beautiful or if Keats Negative Capability wasn’t at work here, that famous doctrine outlined in a letter to his brother: capable of dwelling in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. (Does it not sound like the casting of spell? Some intoxication?) This poem teaches me how to be negatively capable–which is a positive delight, and an easy thing on which to risk.