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In the Beginning: A Note from the Poetry Editor

Winter 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 1

DAVID MIDDLETON is the new, and first, poetry editor of Modern Age. A native of Louisiana, Dr. Middleton has published several widely praised collections of poetry including The Burning Fields and Beyond the Chandeleurs. He is a professor of English, Alcee Fortier Distinguished Professor, and Poet-in- Residence at Nicholls State University inThibodaux, Louisiana.

In the spring of 1990, John Martin Finlay,the distinguished Alabama poet, terminallyill at forty-nine, lay blind and paralyzedin a railed hospital bed in his room on thefamily farm near Enterprise, Alabama. There,in extremis, he composed in his head, thendictated to his sister, his final poem, his deathpoem, "A Prayer to the Father," twelve linesin six couplets addressed to God:

Death is not far from me. At times I crave
The peace I think that it will bring. Be
brave,
I tell myself, for soon your pain will cease.
But terror still obtains when our long lease
On life ends at last. Body and soul,
Which fused together should make up one
whole,
Suffer deprived as they are wrenched
apart.
O God of love and power, hold still my
heart
When death, that ancient awful fact appears;
Preserve my mind from all deranging
fears,
And let me offer up my reason free
And where I thought, there see Thee
perfectly.

Some years before, Finlay wrote anothershort poem, "A Room for a Still Life," apoem not in the perennially available plainstyle of "A Prayer to the Father" but in adistinctly modern style called post-symbolism,a style which presents precise imagesthat have definite symbolic overtones:

A Room for a Still Life

Delicate stalks meander through blue silk
Rootlessly and float blooms white as milk
Upon the sofa's green. The polished floor
Reflects the island of the room the more
Pelagic light pours through a wall of glass.
Some books of images are stacked en masse
Beside an open clock. Light thickens
now;
The colors change; a copper gold somehow
Like acid etches things, an unseen knife,
The cliffs of vividness, mortal still life.
The modish woman lifts her head to face
The god across the room. A circle base
Supports his damaged body, rods connect
His shattered thighs; each part is flecked
With minute stain. But yet the pieces
hold,
Become themselves pure art, imagined
mold,
In her acute though cool aesthetic mind.
It is the fragment, something not defined
But felt through nerves outside the whole,
Which satisfies and gives her mind its sole
And isolated act these days. Time seems
The kind of autumn light one sees in
dreams,
Which floods a fictive object she had
made,
Which floods her too against a wider
shade.

In the opinion of the poetry editor, this isthe most devastating critique we have inverse of radical feminism.

These two poems exemplify the kind ofpoetry that Modern Age invites poets tosubmit for consideration—verse that is wellcrafted (metrical verse will be strongly preferred),that is informed by a knowledge ofWestern civilization, that contains emotionthe motivation for which is made clear in thepoem, and that is both sharable and worthsharing (not narcissistically self-directed,trivial, or needlessly obscure). As to subjectmatter, the poems should be about what T. S.Eliot called "the permanent things"—love,death, religion, history, nature, war, politics,social and personal life, etc. If the poems arepolitical or social in theme, they should be inharmony with Modern Age's conservativeperspective. Well-made poems that are partof the ongoing conservative critique of modernity,especially poems rooted in the valuesof the Southern Agrarian writers, are mostwelcome. Humorous verse that meets theother criteria noted here is also invited.

Poems should normally be 40 lines orunder. Submissions should be sent by emailattachment in Word to:

David Middleton, Poetry Editor,
Modern Age, c/o crashaw@juno.com.

A biographical note as an email attachmentshould also accompany submissions. Readersof Modern Age will note the occasional reprintedpoem that shows what the poetryeditor thinks is possible and desirable in newsubmissions.

Language, especially the language of poetry,is at the heart of human experience. InGenesis, words come before things: God saidLight and there was Light. Socrates, awaitingexecution, listened to his inner voice andmade verses out of Aesop's Fables. And,according to Matthew, Jesus died with thepoetry of the psalms on his lips. Poets whosend verse to Modern Age should ponder intheir hearts these mysteries.

In closing, I return to John Finlay, who, atthe beginning of his poetic career, listed in ajournal those qualities by which any poetattempting to write a great poem should beguided. The poetry editor asks all poets whowould submit verse to Modern Age to keep inmind these criteria. Number two is intentionallyrepeated as number four for emphasis.

"Notes for the Perfect Poem"

  1. It must be about the truth. It mustgive truth.
  2. It must be literal, very literal.
  3. It must be symbolic, very symbolic,but symbolic only in terms of itsliteral "base" or narrative, not interms not growing out of this literalwhatever you may call it.
  4. It must be literal, very literal.
  5. It must be clean and lean and havethe supple, yet firm movement, ofpure muscle.
  6. It must be of the physical world, havewinter mornings, summer nights,creeks, smoke, smells, the reflectionof a star in a bucket of water, etc. init so that the reader will say, "Oh yes,this is just the way it really is."
  7. Yet it must also be abstract.
  8. It must come from a man who ismature and has mastered himself sothat he is calm in the good knowledgehe has of our mystery, ourlanguage and history.
  9. It must be rooted in a particularplace.
  10. It must be whole in its beautifullycompelling demand that the readerengage his wholeness, both his intellectand his emotion.
  11. It must be moral and cause the readerto make one of the three followingstatements: "I should and want tolead that kind of life." "I should notand do not want to lead that kind oflife." "I should and want to have thepatience to resign myself to theseunavoidable facts about life."
  12. It must have both the intensity ofengagement and the detachment ofjudgement.
  13. It must be fully realized in language.
  14. It must be plain.While no one, beginning with John Finlay,believes that such a perfect poem can ever bewritten, these Notes stand as benchmarks forthe kind of poetry Modern Age hopes toattract and publish.