Cloud View Poets: Master Classes with David St. John, Edited by Morley Clark, Jane Downs, CB Follett, and Susan Terris
(Arctos Press, 2005)
The claim made for Cloud View Poets is high: in his introduction David St. John says these writers show “extraordinary accomplishment and universal excellence.” Personally, I found most of them ordinary and conventional. Some good lines, some fresh language, but as a whole, the collection is mundane, with poems of nostalgia, death and worn-out nature imagery.
The impulse behind the book is promising. Bring together work from writers who have participated in master classes with David St. John. Be democratic and include one poem each from every participant, for a total of 81 writers. Loosely organize the book thematically, with four sections looking at art, coming of age, love and nature (the sections are not labeled, so those descriptions are mine, not the editors). Then, let the readers have a go.
For me, the result is uneven. For every surprise or insight, there are many boring approaches to obvious topics. Most of the poems fit into the familiar pattern of contemporary narrative poetry: an incident or event, described, analyzed and presented as deep insight. While this type of poem certainly can work—and the book includes some successful examples—this method unfortunately can look trite if not handled well.
For example, in “Walking with the Poor-will” poet Robert Aquinas McNally sees a bird in the woods. He follows it, thinking about “the sweet grief dividing / where man ends and bird begins.” If that thought is not exactly new, neither is the conclusion:
It ascended then in a final turn, trilled
a single note, cast silence over me
like a dark falling net.
Unfortunately, some of these poems look like weak imitations of classic, familiar works. “September” by Lynn Lyman Trombetta offers thoughts while picking apples. Anything this close to Robert Frost needs to find fresh language or insight, but this doesn’t. Instead, it gives us the rhetorical question: “Shouldn’t I, too, be content with this sweetness?” Getting nostalgic about an apple tree is a tough assignment these days.
The presence of earlier poems also haunts “Out of Place” by Dan Harder. Although Harder does use a risky, fragmented line, his description of a leopard pacing in a cage is overwhelmed by the famous poems by Blake and Rilke. Harder’s language is simply too pallid to overcome the presence of those other big cats.
Some readers these days object to mythic references as obscure or elitist. I don’t share that view and think myth can add depth and resonance to a poem. So my problem with “Arrival of Aphrodite” is not the traditional subject, it is the out-dated, over-used language.
Hora holds the cape ready, vermilion,
Embroidered with purity, for this moment’s end.
But this emergence will never be over.
The poem ends with a pure 19th century exhortation:
Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!
This is so worn out, I wondered it the author was being ironic. I reread the poem a number of times and, if it was ironic, I couldn’t see it.
Some of the Cloud View Poets handled the conventional formats wonderfully well. I was quite moved by “Sha’arei Shalom” by Stephanie Mendel. Here, a woman visits the cemetery where her husband is buried. She imagines him talking with the other people buried there— “Who knows what dead people talk about” and tells him about her life:
No need to tell him Arnold Schwarzenegger
is now our governor. It’s not his concern.
I tell him I saw twelve deer near the mausoleum . . . .
“God of the Jellyfish” by Lucille Lang Day is a descriptive delight:
The god of the jellyfish
Must be a luminous, translucent bowl
The size of a big top,
. . .
ruffled and lacy
as thousands of wedding gowns
and Victorian bodices
“Monday is an Abstract Concept” by Susan Terris is another favorite as it stretches the imagination with its description of an aging mind. The woman in the poem has lost the ability to compute numbers and sees the world in a new way.
August, no longer the eighth month, has become
an old college friend. She and August speak of
God and evolution. They read in the Times
how the chirp of crickets has been unchanged for
fifty-five million years. Such fidelity amuses her . . . .
An extra attraction here is the background material on the authors. Although some critics spent too much time using biography to explain poetry—the poet hated her father and so on—it is interesting to see the professions of these poets. It is probably not surprising that most are teachers. Of 43 different professions, 36 of the participants are teachers, including ten at the university and college level.
Also not surprising for master classes taught on weekends, the large majority of the participants—more than 60 of them—gave their age as over 45. I had to wonder whether younger poets would have shaken things up a bit, but that may be unfounded. Certainly, these poets have had appreciable success. The 81 poets have published a total of 119 books and given more than 280 readings.
One strong advantage of an anthology is diversity and Cloud View Poets does offer an introduction to more than 80 hardworking poets. It’s very possible that other readers will find favorites among the poems that left me unimpressed and, if so, that’s all to the good.
Francie Noyes is a poet and writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. Formerly a political reporter, gubernatorial press secretary and movie critic, she now focuses on poetry and film writing. Her work has appeared in Panamowa, Key West: a collection and The Anthology of New England Writers 2002.