Merrill Leffler, Guest Editor

Introduction to the Fall 2000 Issue
(Volume 1, Number 4)

In poetry, voice is the quality that at bottom compels us. Voice is the poem's distinctive mark, the way a theme or subject is taken on and its inextricable fusion with stance or point of view, rhythm, sound, imagery. There are some poets whose body of work shapes itself into such a distinctive voice that we recognize a poem of theirs whether or not we have read it before -- think of poets as different as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsburg, James Wright, Reed Whittemore, Witslawa Szymborska (in translation yet). It is the poem's voice that sinks its teeth into you, that seizes hold and won't let go. All poets crave their own voice, one that takes on a life of its own. A focus on voice is what guided my selection of these poems in Beltway -- this is not to say that in reading body of other work by these poets that the poems here will necessarily "connect" to them. Still, I think you will find in each group of poems here a distinguishing voice.

Henry Allen's suicide poems are edgy, wild, irreverent, comic, you might even think macabre-- and yet their outrageousness of subject is counterpointed by rhyme, by allusion and literary form, and by a dark laughter. In Saundra Maley's poems, the narrow-lined stanzas move in a glancing nostalgia, especially "War Bonds" and "Mama," while "Offering to a Defeated Saviour" reaches beyond but carries the temper of the first two. Jack Greer's work evokes a kind of hushed amazement, as though each poem were a homage to the circumstances that gave breath to the poems in the first place. Meanwhile, Jean Johnson's poetry, which I have known and cared for since her collection Forgotten Alphabet, occupy a meditative space, one in which the narrator continues to approach a spiritual call but is kept, or keeps herself, at a remove. Finally, John Clarke's poems are those of a holy seeker, a catholic sensibility in which the poem is a medium that searches connection through prayer and meditation.

Archibald MacLeish, in his "Ars Poetica," wrote these often-quoted lines "A poem should not mean/ But be." I believe it must mean and be. Some poems give us "what oft was said,/but ne'er so well expressed." Other are more the advance guard -- they are out there on the edge where language is trying to grasp hold of meaning; in this case, the poem itself is the record of the struggle between the two. When this happens, it is palpable, a living thing in itself. For the most part, the poems in this issue of Beltway participate in this process.

October, 2000


To read more by this author:
Merrill Leffler
Leffler's Tribute to O.B. Hardison, Jr.: The Memorial Issue

Three DC Editors: Richard Peabody on
Merrill Leffler (Profiles Issue)
Leffler on Gabrielle Edgcomb: Profiles Issue
Merrill Leffler: Tenth Anniversary Issue

Merrill Leffler on Ernest Kroll: Poetic Ancestors Issue