Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Lawrence Joseph
Dear Editor,

Does the existence of the present-day, expanding “bureaucracy of poetry” (Jeredith Merrin's phrase) make it more difficult for genuinely bold and vital poetry to achieve recognition today and in the future? It is a reality, certainly, which Stein, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot, Auden, and even Bishop and Hayden did not have to consider. How does this difficulty, social and historical in nature—how does any difficulty, suffered personally, or socially, or historically—affect the poet's ambition to make the poem? I am reminded of an observation made by the German poet Gottfried Benn in an essay from Double Life, “Future and Present,” written in 1950. Benn was sixty-four. I quote from E.B. Ashton's translation:
How many good starters were seen to fall by the wayside! At first, big avant-garde, some indeed divinely gifted—and at forty they take the family tramping through Andalusia and detail the bullfights, or they discover Hindu introversion on a Cook's tour. What breaks them, according to my observations, is premature fame, allowing themselves to be typed by critics and admirers. Only if you break yourself again and again, if you forget yourself, go on and pay for it, live under burdens, let no one talk you into occasions to write, but make your own reasons for writing—then, perhaps, then, if a great deal of disappointment and self-denial and forced abandonment is added—then, eventually, you will perhaps have advanced the Pillars of Hercules by a few worm-lengths—perhaps.

New York, New York

Originally Published: October 30, 2005

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2005


The grandson of Lebanese and Syrian Catholic immigrants, poet and professor of law Lawrence Joseph was born in Detroit and received his BA and JD from the University of Michigan, and a second BA and MA from Cambridge University. His early poetry often references the discrimination and violence he witnessed as a child, including the 1967 Detroit riots and the violent attempted robbery in 1970 of his father, a grocer. Joseph’s . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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