I wondered this after Joe Cordrey’s Reflections of My Mind crossed my desk. The poet subtitles it (Volume One), indicating he will produce more, yet I stand perplexed at what I see before me. It’s a masterpiece of sweeping generalization, pop sentimentality, and low ambition. Yet he must think it speaks to someone. Why else would he pay to have it published?
Ignore the all-caps, centered formatting. Ignore the absent copyright or title page. Ignore Cordrey’s disinterest in convention. Feast yourself instead on this passage from “Aviator”:
COLOR ME HUGHES
SOME CHAOTIC DIRECTOR, WHO NEVER PAID HIS DUES
COLOR ME MALKOVICH
AND, TEACH ME HOW TO FLY
AN AVIATOR, I WILL BE
HONEY, DON’T ASK ME WHY
Apart from the garbage sentiment, Cordrey clearly does not challenge himself. He doesn’t push the capabilities of language. He lets our familiarity with movie allusions do his work. That last line even falls back on relics of blues wails— lyrics that appear partly to aid memory. Any beginning writing teacher would say that, until he pushes himself as a writer, Cordrey can’t push his readers. Like the pop songs he mimics, his poems may drift over readers’ minds and amuse them, but once they’re gone, we forget them.
The soft rock stylings certainly don’t kill Cordrey’s poetry. Aaron St. Julien’s Sanctuary of the Soul: Sacred Heart Offering uses hip-hop rhythms to produces interesting prose poems. Some of his work really has the power to reach in and shake you up, like this from “Invaluable”:
The title African Lotus was sent from Spirit because it describes the essence waiting to blossom the Gift of Divinity called for you last season those in your circle will not understand but still will try to reason some may even accuse you of treason, why! Why!
Yet even that passage offers flashes of St. Julien’s limitations. That distinctive four-beat rhythm and internal rhyme continue unabated throughout his collection. Clearly his fingers found a comfy place, and never drifted. And because he doesn’t challenge himself, he never challenges us.
In fairness, not all self-published poets suffer thus. Thomas Noel Smith, in Dust and Other Poems, sometimes embraces difficulty. Though his melancholy themes have a distinctly Victorian nostalgia, he uses this traditionalism profitably in poems like “Gone Beyond Our Reach”:
Grandfather smoking his Camels
On concrete steps outside his house.
Grandmother wouldn't allow
Even for her man.
That special man that God made
In His own image, and called him
Yet just when I feel maybe Smith offers hope, he lacks the courage of his convictions and retreats into a creaky old wheeze like “There is a Star”:
There is a star that brightly shines
It charts a course for me.
Where I'm bound I cannot tell
But it is my destiny
Smith’s transparent, and not very moving, allusion to Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” sucks the wind from my sails. When I read a poem and feel I’ve seen this before, I don’t feel comforted and homey. I just feel I’ve wasted my finite time.
This retreat into conservatism alarms me. Poets like Eliot and Pound created something new. Joining the poetic tradition means claiming literature’s greatest risk-takers as your ancestors. Yet these poets, so eager for recognition that they jump the accepted publication track and pay to print their work, seem dreadfully risk-averse.
Effective poets threaten themselves. They grasp situations that make themselves uncomfortable. These poets reject that opportunity, and craft drab, uninspiring poetry. But not all hope is lost. Anarda Nashai was only a teen when she wrote School Girl: Poetry, but she embraces challenge and struggle. Consider “Steet Meat”:
Alley ways; traffic lights
Sidewalk trash; rat bites
Terrible traits; dirty feet
The corner store smells of street meat
Nashai appropriates the quatrain, which Smith and Cordrey squander, but makes it something grittier. Its Double Dutch rhythm ironically contradicts its grim images, showcasing what it means to be young amid urban decay. Nashai opens herself to this rot, and by opening herself, she touches us.
Why did Nashai publish her own work, instead of going through journals and accepted publishing houses? Only she could say. But amid all these thorns, it would be easy to forget one rose. Until aspiring poets put themselves at risk, and challenge themselves to challenge us, they’ll clutter the shelves with work that hasn’t finished incubating yet.