This has been such a difficult, contradictory century to assess, and for that reason the lens of Poetry is welcome, particularly because Harriet Monroe and her successors were so intent on discovering what was new. That the new turned out to be ephemeral much of the time is not surprising; it is here, at least, preserved as it were in amber, like the Ephemeroptera of the Jurassic period.
Poetry was midwife to Modernism, just in time to publish Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and it is arguable that no other American literary magazine has so glorious a legacy. But along with the glory, the magazine must also accept responsibility for the inglorious aftermath of Modernism: the willful obscurity, the intellectual posing, the ham-handedness (or tin-earedness), the deadness, which Christian Wiman notes in “Mastery and Mystery: Twenty-One Ways to Read a Century” [October 2012]. The discovery of thrilling poems lent luster to the magazine in its early days, and then the brilliance of the magazine created the reputation of the poets that it published later on—reputations not always deserved, as it turns out. But that’s just how things are.
I like literary history while at the same time I distrust it. It satisfies my rage for order but it also obscures what is timeless and tasty in literature: the poems themselves. Literary history makes Robert Herrick minor, yet does there exist in English more bravura than “Upon Julia’s Clothes”? That’s hardly a minor poem. I hope this new anthology [The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine] will help me to see a through-line in twentieth-century (ancient now) American poetry and at the same time satisfy a need for tasty poems.
One thing I wish Wiman would stop doing is trying to sell his readers on poetry. I think Wiman too would like to stop doing it; maybe he thinks it’s his job. I think Marianne Moore was probably right and that we should read poems with a perfect contempt for poetry.