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Howl, Bush's War & the American Poetry Review

American Poetry Review
March/April 2006
I've been debating with myself whether or not I should approach this topic. Let me start this way.

About three weeks ago I received the latest issue of American Poetry Review which features several essays regarding Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"--sort of a 50th anniversary tribute to the poet and poem. It also featured seven facsimile pages of an original mimeographed version considered the first public printing of "Howl". Commentary by Jason Shinder, Vivian Gornick, Mark Doty and others fill the first ten pages of the magazine. I almost forgot there were other featured poets in the following 54 pages.

But when I looked at the back cover of the magazine I was aghast. American Poetry Review decided to publish Robert Haas's poem "Bush's War" apparently without any editing. What shocked me is the amateur quality of the opening lines. I've read much better written works by Haas than what was published by American Poetry Review. I guess when you've published several then editors think you don't need to be edited for clarity or at least for quality. The poem begins:
I typed the brief phrase, "Bush's War,"
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I did not have them at hand,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.

"Bush's War"
Um, that sounds like something I'd write in my journal or some sketch based on a writing prompt. It does not sound like something I'd leave in a finished poem. Besides, the rest of the poem articulates a set of facts "in an orderly way" without the need of that clumsy introduction.

Hello, APR editors Stephen Berg, David Bonanno and Arthur Vogelsang, did you miss this one? I can understand press deadlines and even a mad rush to publish a poem to make a point, but as a humble reader of the premier poetry journal in America, I expect better quality in this periodical.

It would be a dream job to be editor of such a fine publication. And, if I was in that position, I would whack the first six lines and begin the poem with line seven:
Berlin is a northerly city, In May
At the end of the twentieth century
In the leafy precincts of Dahlem Dorf,
South of the Grunewald, near Krumme Lanke,
Spring is northerly; it begins before dawn
In the racket of bird song. The amsels
Shiver the sun up as if they were shaking
A liquid tangle of golden wire. There are two kinds
Of flowering chestnuts, red and white,

In fact, I'd require Mr. Haas to submit another title. The poem title is evocative, but misleads from the body of the poem, which is a beautiful contrast between "leafy spring", and the "heaped bodies" of the war machine. Haas catalogs various wartime atrocities.
Flash forward: the fire bombing of Hamburg,
Fifty thousand dead in a single night

The alliteration is hauntingly sublime: flash, forward, fire and fifty. He continues.
Firebombing of Tokyo, a hundred thousand
In a night. Flash forward: forty-five
Thousand Polish officers slaughtered
By the Russian Army in the Katyn Woods.

Amazing overview of the carnage war has produced over the last fifty years. Honestly, I think the rest of the poem is a well crafted piece, which questions why nations wage war. The only loose reference to "Bush's War" is toward the end--almost a footnote about the Iraq war. And I tend to agree with him that the Iraq invasion was spoon fed to Americans by "well-paid news readers" reading "the reasons / On the air." The poem is not a political rant. The poem offers a set of facts "in an orderly way" beginning "in the leafy precincts of Dahlem Dorf" and ending "under the chestnuts, in the leafy spring."

I guess that's what irks me the most. The beginning and the title is something I'd expect from an amateur poet writing something for an open mic event, not something from an established, award-winning poet with more than four books to his credit. Maybe Haas was having a bad day and produced a sloppy introduction. And maybe the fine editors were rushing the proofs of the printers and just needed something to fit on the back page and thought no one would notice. Maybe I just destroyed any hope of being published in American Poetry Review.

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