Follow Harriet on Twitter
Andrew Feld & Pimone Triplett: Journal, Day Five
In April 2005, Pimone and I had the dizzying experience of a private tour of Harvard’s Houghton Library Rare Book Collection, where Emily Dickinson’s fascicles are housed. The occasion of our visit to Cambridge was not a happy one (sorry—whenever I write about Cambridge I fall into Victorian locutions): we were there to visit a sick family member. So when we were offered the chance to get out of the house for a few hours, we welcomed the change of air and the distraction.
As for the experience of actually holding a fascicle in my hand, it was a little bit of the old-fashioned Sublime—the giddy glee a high school first date combined with the feeling of being a neophyte entering the Tabernacle.
Then our guide took us over to Keats’ library, which is housed in the Houghton Collection, and let us page through Keats’ copy of Samuel Johnson’s 1765 Shakespeare, with Keats’ comments, sometimes agreeing, often irate, in the margins. I remember the word “Fie!” written at the end of one long Johnson critique, and at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Keats had inked thick black lines through Johnson’s moral summary of the play:
In this play, which all the editors have concurred to censure, and some have rejected as unworthy of our poet, it must be confessed that there are many passages mean, childish, and vulgar; and some which ought not to have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden queen.
Underneath Keats had written, in letters much larger than the text, “Who loveth not understandeth not.”
If I had to summarize the aesthetic stance of the Seattle Review in one sentence, that would be it: “Who loveth not understandeth not.” Of course this doesn’t mean blind, uncritical acceptance of everything sent to us: not all aesthetics are equal, nor all authors in a given aesthetic, nor all poems by a given author. It is the editor’s job to be the filter, to make the selections which give a journal its focus and coherence. What it means is that each author will be judged according to the fullness of their works’ intentions and given the full latitude of their ambitions. Poems fail by their own terms, not all ambitions succeed, and unformed or ill-conceived aesthetics generally result in failed poems—but this should be just passed over in silence. Why waste precious pages dissecting failure? Nothing is easier than not reading—or, in my case, not publishing—a poet whose work you don’t like.
Reviews in which poet-critics demonstrate their superior intelligence by making witty comments at the expense of the work under review are baffling to me: I don’t understand why anyone writes or publishes them. I believe that not so far underneath all these critical commentaries is the desire to establish a kind of absolute poetic standard which would help to establish a more homogeneous poetic landscape. I believe that Charles Bernstein was right when he said in his A Poetics (to paraphrase) that the diversity of poetries in America reflects the diversity of communities in America, and so is a sign of its health. Here I find myself falling into the rhythm of those I believe manifestoes parodied by Steve Martin (“I believe that the Battle of the Network Stars should be fought with live ammunition”). What this means as a practical editorial principle at the Seattle Review is that I will publish generous selections of each poet’s work, and that reviews and essays in the journal will be driven by appreciation and gratitude.
My ideal editorial model for the Seattle Review is the old Ben Sonnenberg Grand Street, a journal where in one issue you’d find an essay by Guy Davenport, a poem-essay by Anne Carson, a play by Kenneth Koch, and a poem by James Merrill: translations, fiction, memoirs and essays, all united by acuity of intellect and a generous, genial love of the written word. To be a contemporary, updated (and, yes, more diverse) version of this ideal seems to me to be (to use another Victorian locution) not an unworthy ambition.