Issue 120 |
Spring 2013


Of late, I have been collecting vintage radios, a distracting hobby that I am mostly ambivalent about in comparison with sincere radio enthusiasts, which explains why I only own a handful. They are scattered throughout my house. The Fisher Model 100 sits regally aged in the living room between the fireplace and my bay window where I listen to VPR’s morning news, watching early light stretch into day as a svelte neighbor makes her seemingly heroic, winter morning jog through our quaint neighborhood. A beacon of health choices, she never fails to secure my envy. A monochromatic powder blue Zenith from the 1950s matches my bedroom’s midcentury decor. I purchased it from Anjou & the Little Pear, a consignment shop in downtown Burlington, Vermont, that specializes in high-end designer Danish and American home furnishings. Its presence feels delicate and slight until I turn its knob and a sharp crackling gives way to a gradual rising of voices or classical music. In my upstairs office, among the columns of magazines, literature, and art books that populate my floor, is a teakwood 1970s Panasonic Solid State AM/FM radio. It has a coffee stain on top, and I normally keep it playing even when I’m not home.

Despite their utilitarian and decorative functions, I cannot help but experience an occasional twinge of sadness when I look at them. Given the advances in online music services and all manner of
available podcasts as well as iPhone apps that can stream radio stations from around the world, the radio at the beginning of the twentieth century, once a paragon of human achievement and engineering is, it is safe to say, approaching obsolescence. A few notable companies are working diligently to keep the radio relevant in our times, but its current incarnation will inevitably and eventually give way to other means and modes of communication.

I heard a prominent editor of an American literary journal once describe poetry as a “dead technology.” I was startled by the invocation of poetry as though it were an outdated appliance or piece of equipment, but more that here was one of our most celebrated arbiters of literary taste, charged with the task of stewarding and curating works of contemporary literature into existence, joining the “poetry-is-dead” pack. He made his pronouncement, no less, before a group of writers, among them aspiring poets, some of whom I thought I needed to approach with a box of Kleenex. I instantly knew what plagued this editor was his inability to hear. This virus has spread widely, regrettably too, and also infects most critics of poetry. This accounts for our current crisis in poetry criticism, where The New York Times only reviews about three books of poetry per year; the omnibus reviews feel wretchedly obligatory and lackadaisical. Contemporary poetry requires radical listening and demands that we modulate our beings to its signals, if we are to enjoy its broadcasts and news updates. “Wait wait…Don’t tell me!”

To pronounce poetry as dead is to also implicate other literary art forms as possibly lifeless. Genres are not islands unto themselves. In our age, a conversation happens between the latest bestseller and the independent, small-press volume of poetry; most of this conversation concerns the nature and force of a democracy that values each citizen’s lone voice.

In his poem “Sporting Life,” Jack Spicer famously states, “The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio.” Ever since I started collecting vintage radios, I have had a recurring dream of finding myself in a junkyard, atop a mountain of radios of all kinds. They all miraculously work, and if I strain and order my hearing, which requires stout concentration, I can discern what emerges from that cacophony of transmissions. This is the age we find ourselves with all the media before us.

The honor of editing Ploughshares has been of that same work; I have found it restorative and personally nurturing. The authors in this issue entertain, bring the news, and elegantly sing the underlying complexities of our existence. However, maybe even more notably, as Spicer suggests: against all that alienates us from each other, these authors, with their counterpunching visions and imaginative uses of language, render us more a community—flawed beyond belief, yet whose humanity is all the more striking because of our joyous nature to find redemption, to grasp and render all that is sublime, beautiful, and truthful. In the spirit of radical, attentive listening, I hope you enjoy what is heard and felt here.