“Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Frost, and Stevens doubled down with, “Death is the mother of beauty.” Looking into the rust-specked gold hickory leaves through my reflection in the window pane, I can almost believe I’ve found a mirror that shows the autumnal truth, not to mention the lie in the truth – “That time of year thou mayst in me behold . . . ,” “glowing of such fire” and so on. With 20 years of editing Shenandoah behind me, I know this is the last conventional milestone I’ll reach, and when my birthday rolled around last April, I decided to find a way to mark and celebrate, the nearly 2000 poems S has published on my watch, not to mention the tens of thousands we’ve had to decline, some with substantial regret. I wanted to gather and display about fifty which I thought might represent the journal’s poetry selections across two decades. I didn’t think in terms of “the best,” the most “skillful” or “representative,” so much as the more visceral standard: the poems which got their hooks into me and left permanent signatures, sometimes scars, at other times beauty marks or survival instructions. 50, I thought, and take your time, but 50 would also make a good booklet, if anyone would want to make a more tangible artifact than the digital feature. 20, 50 – round figures, as if ordained.
Such winnowing was not easy, and I found the process more demanding than reading the roughly 2,500 unsolicited poetry submissions we normally receive per issue. I also imposed additional governing principles: no more than one poem per poet, not too many poems about birds or historical narratives, and always the selection had to be text-based, not author-based. It turns out that most of the poems I chose are by widely published writers, but that’s perhaps more a sign of my generation and taste than any commitment to the conventional. And there are surprises.
I also had to resist a few very long poems, which are delightful to read on the page but perhaps frustrating to scroll through for a couple of hundred lines. Almost all the authors of the long poems I was drawn to are represented by shorter poems (Merwin, Oliver, John Engels, Rodney Jones). I also wanted this little anthology to display a variety of subject and tone, form and energy, diction and cadence, mode and manner and figures of speech. And I decided that I would not, in an attempt at politeness, include work recommended by guest editors unless my enthusiasm for that work matched my zeal for poems I found on my own. A final choice – the feature section wouldn’t actually cover 20 full years, as our last eight issues have been on line, so the poems I would have chosen from the digital version are available already on the site. I’ll list those below, and one can find them in our archives. One other pertinent note: the fifty turned out to be over sixty. What can I say? My math’s not perfect, and I’m greedy.
Some of the poets, such as Merwin, Kizer, Galvin, Adcock, Chappell, Friman, Kumin and Wright – are highly decorated veterans and long-time contributors. Others – Steve Scafidi, for instance, Mark Sanders, Aimee Nezhukmatathil, Anna Journey, Natasha Trethewey, Joe Bathanti – are relative newcomers when set against the background of the journal’s full life span (so far) of sixty-five years. Half a dozen are deceased, and much missed. But I’m veering toward maudlin here, and the poems are the point, the proof that not all perishes with the body.
I want this editor’s comment to be, for a change, less essay than note, so I’m just going to mention a little of what may be found here. There are poems obviously formal, slyly formal, jazzy and stately, rhymers and slant rhymers and subtle echo effect poems. Laments and celebrations (such as Scarbrough’s “Victory Song” about how “can one keep/ the whole sweet problem/ of deliverance alive”). Riffs on literature, a “standstill plumb bob” in the midst of busy construction, the elegant energy of an ice skating woman, the “rodomontade” of rapscallion genius Jerry Lee Lewis, painter Walter Anderson after a hurricane returning exotic birds to a zoo, a Civil War spy, the printer’s art, a Halloween scene, a spikey grandsire, the living Elvis, the bird-envying “sweet man” John Clare, coils of wire keeping man captive, “frantic voices” of strike and chase dogs “in the black woods,” the magic of organ music, courtship in Glory River, wild bees, the Devil, death slow or sudden, an incorrigible sparrow and a woman viewing a photograph of herself as a six-year-old “buried in the colorless album,” the woman now thinking of that child thinking: “My mother is dead./ I forgive no one.”
If Shenandoah survives another half decade, I hope it will grow to include a complete on-line archive of all its content from 1950 on, so that no one would have to settle for a sampler or be disappointed to discover that a favorite is among the missing.. That would indeed be one occasion calling for firewords (I meant to type “fireworks,” but sometimes the hand knows best!) and peach ice cream straight from the churn.
* Poems I chose which can already be found on the shenandoahliterary.org site:
Kathleen Driscoll’s “What the Girl Wore” (V. 64, No. 1),
Steve Gehrke’s “St. Ignatius on the Prison Ship to Rome” (V. 61, No. 1),
Holly Hunt’s “Among the Broken Souvenirs of Earth” (V. 64, No. 2),
Steve Kronen’s “The Odds” (V. 63, No. 2),
Davis McCombs’ “Deterred” (V. 64, No. 2),
Linda Pastan’s “Cinema Verité” (V. 62, No. 1),
Lynn Powell’s “Love Song from the Wrong Side of the Rain” (V. 63, No. 1),
Donald Platt’s “Chartres in the Dark” (V. 61, No. 1),
Tess Taylor’s “Big Granny” (V. 61, No. 2) and
Corrie Wiliamson’s “Leaning Toward Manifesto” (V. 62, No. 1).
Here’s hoping you will join me “to love that well what thou must leave ere long.”
(As you may have guessed, I’m laying a little groundwork for the Shakespeare feature scheduled for the spring issue. Stay tuned.)
– R. T. Smith