“I’ve received some letters asking me to state publicly my editorial position ...”
Ezra Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” seems not to apply to the question of what an incoming editor of this magazine intends. Though Harriet Monroe established Poetry’s vision in an editorial in her first issue (“The Motive of the Magazine”) and in the famous “Open Door” policy published in the second, the question gets asked anew when there’s a change at the top of our masthead. In 1949 for example, when Hayden Carruth became the editor, one of the magazine’s long-standing guarantors posed it, commenting that though Poetry’s policy may have been clear to the staff, it certainly wasn’t to her. (“You don’t seem to get enough important names,” she complained.) Called upon to make a definitive statement, Carruth wrote that though he thought the answer was inherent in the magazine’s pages, it was: “we aim to publish good poems.” Sensible as this seems, he only lasted a year in the job. When Karl Shapiro took over from him in 1950, Time magazine sent a reporter to ask what his editorial “policy” would be. Shapiro was “horrified,” he later said, because — either ignoring or embodying the “Open Door” doctrine — he’d “never thought of a literary magazine having a policy.” Nevertheless, in his third issue he wrote that the explanation for the “persistence” of Poetry magazine was threefold: it discovered and encouraged “new talent,” presented the new work of known poets, and preserved a month-to-month record of American poetry. No surprises there, in spite of which Shapiro lasted but five years. Understandably, the succeeding run of editors, from Henry Rago and Daryl Hine to John Frederick Nims and Joseph Parisi, published no introductory statements on the subject, and let the poems speak for themselves.
Then ten years ago next month an editorial, less than two pages long, appeared. Poetry’s new editor, Christian Wiman, began calmly enough, with the neutral-sounding words quoted above. But that first sentence was a ruse, for Wiman memorably inaugurated his tenure by indicating a distaste for poets who have a poetics (“bores”), describing an office under attack by submissions from “a horde of iambic zombies,” admitting a suspicion “that ‘editor’ and ‘idiot’ are synonyms” — and imagining ruthless future readers who “will look at all these poems into which we’ve poured the wounded truths of our hearts, all the fraught splendor and terror of these lives we suffered and sang” ... and giggle. All he wanted, he announced, was “poems from poets whose aim is way beyond Poetry magazine, indeed, beyond all magazines.”
I don’t see how any post-Wiman editor could top that.
I’m recounting this history to let myself more or less off the hook. Changes will surely come as I take over from Chris, with whom I worked these last six years — years that proved him to be one of the magazine’s canniest and most stalwart stewards. Though editors, like poets, must avoid cliche, I’m happy to admit up front that his will be hard footsteps to follow. It’s an honor, but an even greater responsibility, for me to take over from him. And I hope in the issues to come readers feel that the vision of the magazine is being refreshed, without disruption to its proven record. The “motive” of the magazine, as Harriet put it, will remain what it always has been: “to keep free of entangling alliances with any single class or school,” to be, that is, eclectic.
In thinking about my predecessors’ work, and wondering how to live up to it, I’ve asked myself why Harriet Monroe’s original and originating policy has endured so well. It’s fascinating to note that Harriet knew her own mind, but when it came to poetry she had a sixth sense that guided her in spite of herself. Her own taste was for a poetics that, though she called it “new,” was rooted, like Modernism itself, firmly in the late nineteenth century. She liked, and wrote herself, poems that seem hopelessly dated now. Fortunately, that countervailing sixth sense allowed her to make literary history. She invented a box, you could say — and promptly set to work thinking outside it. Her magazine was, therefore, like she was: unpredictable, difficult, and infuriating. As a consequence of these traits, we can now take for granted that poets such as Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Pound, H.D., Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, and many more, are part of the pantheon of English-language poetry. Their poems, confounding and aggravating to readers when they first appeared in our pages, exemplify what Peter Quartermain calls “stubborn poetries” — opaque at first, this was work that became clearer and dearer to us over time.
Of necessity, then, but also by inclination, I’m going to take the long view, which means taking risks with unpredictable, difficult, and infuriating work — just as all my predecessors have. The value of “stubborn” poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they’re up to, is that they get us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, something we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction. As it happens, poems teach us how to read other poems, so I’ll always be looking over my shoulder as
I move forward: a bad way to walk or drive, but a time-tested way of editing Poetry. The composer Van Dyke Parks, when asked about the tension between eclecticism and traditionalism, said that it was wonderful when somebody called him a “futuristic traditionalist.”
I hope to be called that someday, too.
A glance all the way back to 1914 fortifies and emboldens me. Quartermain’s essay in this issue takes as an epigraph these lines from William Carlos Williams’s “At Dawn”—
O marvelous! what new configuration will come next?I am bewildered with multiplicity.
Nearly a century later, Poetry receives about 120,000 poems a year. At the dawn of my tenure as editor, I share Williams’s exuberance: it’s a joy to be bewildered with poetry’s multiplicity. Faced with the new, poems from the past still accompany us. So let me issue an invitation to readers with a stanza from another poem from the time of the magazine’s founding, Robert Frost’s “The Pasture”:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):I sha’n’t be gone long. — You come too.
It will be new
whether you make it newor not. It will be full of neo-
shadows. Full of then — both past and next,iridescent with suspense.