We would like to thank you for the submission of your untitled poem (“Roses are red/Violets are blue”) to The Missouri Review. We assure you that it received the utmost attention of our editorial staff. Though we regret that we are unable to accept your poem for publication, we would like to share a few observations and to offer suggestions towards a revision. It is our belief that another draft or two might strengthen the chances of the poem’s later publication—if not in the pages of our own humble journal, then perhaps in another of greater merit.
We might consider this poem a reunion poem in which two lovers come back together following the woman’s recent dalliance with another. Though on the surface the reunion seems innocent enough, given the poem’s traditional “roses are red” structure and meter, the apparent joy of the man at her return, his willingness to forgive and move forward, a closer reading reveals a more ambiguous, potentially darker interpretation of the lovers’ reunion.
We first observe this ambiguity in the third line of the poem: “Oh my, lump in the bed.” The placement of the comma forces the reader to hesitate. In the context of the opening couplet (“Roses are red/Violets are blue”), we expect the comma to follow the interjection—as follows: “Oh, my lump in the bed,/How I’ve missed you.” Note how this would allow the lines to fit the traditional rhythm of a “rose poem.” Had the line been punctuated in this manner, we might be able to read “my” as a possessive adjective, the speaker laying claim to (or reclaiming) his lover, which would be in keeping with the dramatic situation. But given the punctuation and awkward placement of the comma, we must ask, does this instability in the phrase signal instability in the relationship? His lover recently returned from the arms of another, is the speaker himself uncertain now of his claim to her love? Or does it indicate a healthy obsession with the morning salute of a “little Commander-in-Chief” (as one staff member suggested)?
Our sense that the placement of the comma may in fact be merely editorial carelessness is reinforced by the subsequent unveiling of the speaker’s attitude toward his lover. While we realize that the phrase “lump in the bed” has a personal meaning that is meant to be endearing (please give the First Lady our regards), we fear that it portrays a, shall we say say, less than progressive attitude toward women. Or is the description of the lover as merely a “lump in the bed” a reflection of her unresponsiveness as a lover? Is her lumphood a response to her dalliance with “that charming French guy”?
We also worry as well that a French guy might come across as too clichéd, too Henry Jamesian, too Rumsfeldian in its presentation of Europe vs. America, Old World v. New World, etc. What if he were “that charming Jakartan guy”? Or “that charming Kuwaiti guy”? Just a thought.
Lines 8 and 9 are perhaps the most fully realized moments in the poem and we commend you for them. Though the speaker states that he misses his lover, he seems unable to accept responsibility for his true feelings. Rather he transfers these emotions to the family pets, going so far as to project his own difficulties upon poor Barney. Obviously the shoe that the speaker claims was consumed by the dog reflects the speaker’s resentment of his lover’s sense of self-empowerment, embodied in her freedom to choose another lover. The shoe, of course, has been a symbol of feminist emancipation throughout the 20th Century, em(body)ing the new “mobility” brought about in part by the entrance of masses of women into the workforce and into jobs and careers traditionally held exclusively by men (see P. Schroeder, G. Ferraro, H.R. Clinton); by the development of modern forms of birth control (“the pill”); and by an economy fueled by mass consumption (perhaps best illustrated by malls, of which shoe stores are an integral part). We see this dynamic in such every day phrases as “walk out of your life” or to “walk all over him,” as well as in popular culture. See Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.”
In line 9, the rhythm of the line is broken, again subverting our expectations. We applaud the risk that the poet takes here. Again, we do admit that there was much disagreement among our staff as to whether or not this shift in the rhythm was an authorial intention or mere editorial oversight. We chose to grant you “presidential” license, attributing it to the often unique syntactical structures that you bring to the English language in the course of your daily speech.
Though the final word seems literally to imply an aircraft carrier, we couldn’t help but wonder—in this age of HIV and AIDS—if the author was bitterly implying that he, in fact, was a carrier of some venereal disease, or if he was placing a sort of curse upon her: “the next time you cheat on me may you ‘land’ on a ‘carrier’ of some horrible infectious disease.” It lends the poem a disturbing quality that leaves us uncertain if we are to take joy in the reunion of these two lovers, or if we are to understand some barely repressed hostility on the part of the speaker.
In this context, we return to the end of the penultimate line and the word “barrier,” which, if we are to understand the final line as interpreted above, may be re-read as “bury her.” Again, we note the repressed rage of the jilted lover erupting through the surface of the poem, revealing itself in the phonetically articulated desire of the speaker to avenge his emasculation. Unable to win clearly and convincingly a war that would avenge his father’s greatest tormentor, he has sought solace in the familiar arms of his lover and in the form of a traditional poetry—only to discover that she has been finding a solace of her own devising, in the arms of his tormentor. Of course, we must be careful to distinguish between the author and the speaker of the poem.
Certainly, the poem is your poem and it is not our intention to “write your poem for you.” We merely wished to provide you with some “outside the beltway” perspective on your poem. While we are aware that the demands of your present occupation may not leave you with much time to devote to your poetry, we would urge you to consider participation in a poetry workshop. Public libraries, community colleges, bookstores and arts organizations often offer such programs free of charge. [We’re not certain about the United Nations, but you might check with Mr. Powell.] These organizations can provide a wonderful opportunity for lovers of freedom, democracy, and poetry around the world to come together to share and exchange work in an atmosphere of mutual respect and mutual interest. We understand that rejection can be difficult for any poet, especially one just starting out, but we’d encourage you to be persistent.
We hope we have been helpful and look forward to further correspondence.
The Missouri Review
P.S. Enclosed please find a flier for our annual contest—for poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction (note: yes, we distinguish between fiction and creative nonfiction). First prize is $2000—but the postmark deadline for submissions is Oct. 15! So hurry!
P.P.S. May we take this moment to encourage a fellow poet to affirm his support for the NEA? To consider restoration of its budget to its former levels? Again, just a thought. —a Missouri Review Website exclusive [via walker]
[Too good not to be reprinted in full. — FmH.]