Follow Harriet on Twitter
What One Can Learn About Poets from Their Acknowledgements: Some Rickety Conclusions
They appear every few years, when poets put out new collections, which is to say: they appear infrequently. Indeed, they often resemble afterthoughts, slipped into the backs of books or shrunk down and very nearly dissolved in the tiny type of copyright pages. And the events they record and acknowledge – the securing of grants, the input of peers, the debuts of poems in magazines – are less meteorological than geological. Acknowledgements summarize the occasional moments of friction and achievement in the otherwise tectonically slow grind of poets’ lives.
But they also reveal to us, acknowledgements do, something about the personality behind those lives. As poet and editor John Barton suggests, “An acknowledgements page acts as an alternate to the contents page, a skeleton key to the literary world in which a poet aspires, even succeeds, to function. As I read any collection…I find myself checking where each poem first saw light; I muse about what more this might tell me about the poem, the magazine, and the poet. My reading pleasure is thus increased.”
Mine, too. So what rickety conclusions can we draw about poets, based on the evidence of their acknowledgements?
The example of the poet who lists the various magazines in which her poems first appeared but then singles out one magazine for special mention is an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. This is a poet who seems to be proud of her successes, of what she perceives to be her ‘hits.’ And her acknowledgements often look something like this:
“Variations of these poems first appeared in Avant Gardening, New England Review, PN Review, Quietude Quarterly, and Shenandoah.
The poems ‘Bird Song’ and ‘Drowning’ first appeared in the New Yorker.”
There’s nothing wrong with singling out the New Yorker; like other NY institutions – e.g. The Yankees, Woody Allen, etc. – it puts out a pretty good product and is too easily hated (especially by those who secretly burn to be embraced by it). Still, it would be a nicely subversive gesture if, every now and then, our proud poet singled out, for special mention, one of the magazines we haven’t heard of.
This poet is also, as demonstrated by her use of the telling word “Variations,” a perfectionist. She is at pains, though she may not realize it, to alert future scholars and archaeologists (those who may one day browse through the brittle remains of her books) that earlier and slightly different versions of her poems do exist and might be worth digging for. Some poets, however, will insist that “Variations of these poems first appeared, often in very different form, in the following magazines” (italics mine; anxiety theirs). These poets are embarrassed, if not mortified, about past indiscretions. They are inadvertently telling us that the earlier versions of poems, launched in literary journals, were inferior prototypes, but the new versions, the 2.0s, are the correct ones, the definitive master takes. The bugs have been worked out, so just ignore the earlier versions (which you probably never read anyway).
Some poets, John Barton observes, like to indicate which poems appeared in which magazines. If these poets have an unconscious, sinister agenda it may be to remind us of just how many poems they published in the New Yorker or Poetry or wherever. But I think they’re just proud and meticulous, like the versifiers who take care to note, with a farmer’s pride, the snaggle-toothed poem that snagged the second prize ribbon in some regional contest.
Cool poets will bury their magazine credits in the tiny type of the copyright page; they don’t need to flaunt their success or make great shows of gratitude. Annoying poets, who are a little too cool, will obscure their acknowledgements with private allusions: “Thanks, D.L., for the industrial-strength corkscrew and those Paris nights!” Poets who haven’t had a lot of success and thus maybe feel that they have less to be cool about – these poets will draw attention to magazine credits, prizes, and fellowships by isolating the acknowledgements on its own page. Of course, these may also just be conscientious people who care about giving the deserving their due. Some will even go on for two or three pages, thanking their editors, publishers, professors, first readers, first sexual partners – anyone who ever shared, like, a ZIP code with the poems. Such poets are generous, thoughtful citizens. Good members of their community or support network. They will sometimes insist that their community or support network dramatically improved their poems, and that the lingering weaknesses are all theirs. They may be right. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the quality of poems that were raised by a village, poems that seem to have needed so much help from so many hands. Gratitude is good, but a poet who did her job in the first place probably wouldn’t – probably shouldn’t – need to be too grateful to anyone, let alone a vast, pandemic syndicate of friends, relatives, and editors.
Still, I enjoy them, acknowledgements. They expose pride, modesty, arrogance, graciousness – brief moments of good old humanity. Even the most gratuitous displays of gratitude – those long lists that mark the seismic influences of various spouses, sponsors, and deities, unspooled like tape – can be nice to observe when the person at the podium is the sort of dark horse who rarely makes it to anything as elevated as a podium. A surprise winner at the Oscars, say. A longshot. A poet.