It seems like someone should post about this. I guess it will be me. There is a changing of the guard over at the New Yorker—long-time Poetry Editor, Alice Quinn, is stepping down, and Paul Muldoon is stepping up. Maybe this is already common knowledge all over the poetry world—I just heard it the other day on a conference call with Emily Warn and our fellow bloggers. It’s big, exciting news.

I don’t mean to say I dislike most poems published by the New Yorker. “Dislike” is too strong a word.
Most elicit a sort of mental shrug from me. But I get plenty of magazines—from the Beloit Poetry Journal to the Dark Horse to Poetry, even the TLS–and I love sites like Poetry Daily (where I first encountered Don Paterson) and Verse Daily—where I find first-rate new poems and fresh new poets. I do not turn to the New Yorker for this experience. First, I read the cartoons. Then, anything by Adam Gopnik. Then, the movie reviews (especially if by Anthony Lane). Then any literary articles. Then Goings On About Town… etc. You get the picture. (Full disclosure: no, I’ve never had a poem accepted there—would I like to? You bet.)
For a lot of general, intelligent readers, the New Yorker is their about their only exposure to contemporary poetry. And frankly I think the magazine shares some blame for the atrophy of interest in contemporary poetry of the reading public. This is one magazine just about every household with literary interests subscribes to (the folks who are going to buy the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel or biography). And the subscribers figure, this magazine gets a zillion poetry submissions, and this is the best stuff they get? Hmmm. Wouldn’t you lose interest? I’m this moment looking at a recent poem by Les Murray (“Fame”) which seems little more than an anecdote with some occasional rhymes (and I’d remind you that “anecdote” is Greek for “unpublished”), though the title gestures at larger implications. It’s not bad, exactly, just slight--I can’t believe this is Murray at the top of his game.
That is not to say I have never been introduced to a poet by the New Yorker, and I am occasionally bowled over by something. I was electrified to start reading Kay Ryan in there. And I vividly remember first reading James Fenton in one of their all-too-rare features on individual poets. And as Quinn points out, part of her legacy will be that she introduced many new foreign poets in translation to an American audience.
Editorship aside, perhaps some of the problem stems from poetry’s status within the magazine itself. Poetry is clearly filler in a way the cartoons are not. There is a whole issue devoted to cartoons--as well as a style and a fiction issue--but there has never been in my memory a poetry issue.
(There was an interesting controversy a while back, over the New Yorker and the Poetry Foundation, on the subject of money and boosterism and responsibility to the reading public: Dana Goodyear’s article,
David Orr’s response .)
I attended the Sewanee summer writers’ conference about seven years ago. The editors' panel with Alice Quinn was absolutely packed with poets, all of us hanging on her every word. It was as if she were the Pope. The question everyone really wanted to know--How did she choose poems?
She assured us a percentage came over the transom (though I imagine a lot of big name poets submit there over the transom.) But for an example of how she got a poem--and admittedly perhaps to discourage a dangerous stampede of submissions from us eager versifiers in the audience--she said something to the effect of, well, I am at a reading by, say, Seamus Heaney, and I go up to him afterwards and ask if he has any poems.
The sense of gloom in the room was palpable.
Of course, Paul Muldoon can just ring Seamus up on the phone. (An aside: maybe it isn't clear here, I am a Heaney fan...) But Muldoon, unlike Quinn, is himself a poet, and a virtuoso one. I cannot imagine his choices will be dull or second-drawer efforts, even if by some of the usual suspects. I am looking forward to turning to the poems first for a change.

Originally Published: September 23rd, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. September 23, 2007

    There's a good history of the New Yorker by a professor from Delaware, Ben Yagoda-- it's called About Town, and the Google people have excerpts.
    If you read the whole thing, you'll see that your suspicions about "poetry's status within the magazine itself" go back decades, long before Alice Quinn arrived. Before the Fifties it was a venue for light verse, mostly, more Phyllis McGinley than Wallace Stevens (McGinley was closely identified with the magazine). When Howard Moss (not to be confused with Harold Ross) took over the poetry selection, the New Yorker became far more important to poetry than poetry has ever been to the New Yorker. Or at least more important than it was circa 1994 or so, when Yagoda's history cuts off.
    What editor wouldn't ask Seamus Heaney for new poems?

  2. September 23, 2007
     Alicia (A. E.)

    PS--Yes, if I were an editor, I'd love to get a poem from Seamus Heaney too. But you can appreciate the demoralizing effect that had on aspiring poets given as a typical example of how an editor acquires a poem!

  3. September 23, 2007
     Christian Bök

    The New Yorker has always struck me as a magazine that regards poetry as a kind of spackle to fill up the cracks in the brickwork of the page–spaces where no other kind of copy (like stories or adverts) might otherwise fit. The attitude of the editor in your anecdote also suggests that poetry has become a kind of afterthought in our appreciation of literature (and in an effort to stave off the onslaught of desperate poetlings seeking publication in such a venue, the editor, of course, has no choice but to accentuate the marginality of the genre in her magazine by handpicking the brand of caulking that she uses to fill the page).

  4. September 23, 2007

    Your posts have been really interesting. I wonder, what you say to people who argue that the same criticism, more or less, that you aim at the New Yorker, applies to Poetry, the Gettysburgh Review, the Atlantic, Callaloo., etc .. that is most mainstream poetry publications.
    It seems like journals decide what their aesthetics are and seek those out in writers, whether it is subject matter or form. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

  5. September 24, 2007
     Alicia (A. E.)

    Thanks for commenting. Well, it is true that any publication has an aesthetic, and major publications often have a stable of writers. I am not sure why it is the New Yorker that particularly disappoints me. Perhaps, as Steve suggests, I expect too much--that its importance to poetry is so out of proportion with poetry's importance to it. You hear stories, I guess from Moss's time, about a young poet like X.J. Kennedy sending off and getting their first poem published there, and I just do not think that would happen anymore, at least under the current climate. To a certain degree I wonder if this does not in some way intersect with Brian Phillips' essay on Taste--which resonated with me on many levels though I found it disappointingly abstract and without concrete examples. That is, one gets the feeling that some editors are afraid to go out on a limb and "discover" someone, perhaps distrusting their own taste, and prefer to pick a known "brand", as Christian puts it, even if the poem in question is a relatively lackluster effort. This seems to be the case for a lot of prizes too. It is hard to imagine a first book nowadays winning the Pulitzer, as Some Trees did.
    I had originally tried to post another comment to Steve too, though I guess that vanished into the aether. That was to say that I'd be thrilled to see sharp and witty light verse in the magazine (a la Parker or Nash); if the poetry is going to be filler, I had rather it be entertaining. And even McGinley has her charms ("Portrait of Girl with Comicbook"). I think there's room for verse inspired by the Graces as well as their terrible sisters, the Muses Nine.

  6. September 24, 2007

    Is the argument that editors should not decide what their aesthetics are? And do only "mainstream" poetry publications do this??

  7. September 24, 2007
     Dana Levin

    A.E., this is really nothing about nothing, but I read the New Yorker in the EXACT SAME sequence you do!
    Thanks for the post.

  8. September 24, 2007
     Matt Cozart

    "It is hard to imagine a first book nowadays winning the Pulitzer, as Some Trees did."
    Some Trees won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, not the Pulitzer.

  9. September 25, 2007
     Alicia (A.E.)

    It's not an aesthetic I object to in magazines so much as an anaesthetic. But I'm sure I contradict myself, and will again!
    Dana, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one!
    Shoot--I knew it had won the Yale Younger (judged by Auden), but somehow thought Some Trees also won the Pulitzer that year. I guess I am mistaken. Thanks...

  10. September 25, 2007
     Nick T.

    This discussion reminded me of Marjorie Perloff's essay "Between Verse and Prose: Beckett and the New Poetry," found in The Dance of the Intellect. Perloff uses the occasion of the New Yorker's publication, in 1981, of "Ill Seen Ill Said," a non-lineated piece by Samuel Beckett, to talk about the zone between prose and verse. Perloff analyzes the literal layout of the piece--is it a poem? a short story?--in the magazine, which is presented as prose in columns--at one point Beckett's piece frames a poem by Harold Brodkey--and offers a nifty, if unsurprising critique of the New Yorker's predictable approaches to genre.
    But the essay's larger aim is to reframe Beckett as a poet, or at least to argue that he never really stopped writing poems, even if he wasn't breaking lines, after his initial efforts in his 20’s (including a packet of poems he sent across the Atlantic to Poetry; these were swiftly rejected). To that end, Perloff argues that "Ill Seen Ill Said" is as much a poem as the Brodkey piece, and scans both. Though Beckett's piece isn't lineated, it scans beautifully, its metrics far more interesting and ambitious than those in the Brodkey poem. But you'd have to go to the essay for specifics; it's been some time since I've read it.

  11. September 25, 2007
     Robert J. Clawson

    I began reading The New Yorker in the 1950's, when I was in high school. I gravitated to the cartoons and the humorous verse. I've still got a subscription. In the Howard Moss years, I met him for lunch at the Algonquin with my buddy Anne Sexton. He asked me to send him some poems. Damn, I hadn't written any. I wasn't even a "desperate poetling" (love that!). During his time, powerful poems appeared from time to time, plus a good sprinkling of poems by Howard Moss.
    I've had the good fortune to know Alice Quinn from the late Sixties, when she attended an Anne Sexton and Her Kind concert at Jordan Hall. You know how people who just barely know you repeat something each time you meet after elapsed years? Whenever I met Alice, she always said, "I've never attended anything since that Jordan Hall concert that so absolutely reeked of reefer." (I was busy and didn't really notice.)
    After I actually began writing poetry and publishing it in fine journals such as The Southern Review and Beloit Poetry Journal, each time I ran into Alice she asked me to "send her a few." I did, but she published none of them. So, even having had such luck, contacts at the pub don't always work.
    As is Alicia, I have been at best luke warm about 97% of what appears. As so often happened with Playboy, which paid good money for literature (I knew McCauley too), fine writers who've been solicited, couldn't have sent their best work to The New Yorker. I read, for instance, the most padded tanka I've ever encountered in The New Yorker. The writer? Richard Wilbur.
    I think it's good news that Paul Muldoon has taken on the job. He won't be publishing bad tankas. It'll still be difficult to publish a poem in The New Yorker, whether you're a pro or a desperate poetling. The main thing is, it's still a great magazine. Although its fact-checking and proofing, like most other printed journals, have degraded since the era of William Shawn (John McFee's even wordier), its editorials and reportage are courageous. When poets send work that achieves the daring of Jon Lee Anderson, George Packer, and Jane Meyer, I'll bet Muldoon will feel obliged to publish it.
    Bob Clawson

  12. September 26, 2007
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    "Meet the new boss,
    Same as the old boss..."

  13. September 27, 2007
     Robert Vasquez

    Thank you for sharing was is indeed good news.
    I recently noted in my blog a comment about the lack of poetry by people of color in a certain metropolitan magazine (could it be the same one?) published in a city that has over a million people of color within its limits. Does this mean that poetry by white poets isn't important? No, of course not; however, if a magazine is going to name itself after the inhabitants of a certain city, such a publication should be eager to promote the voices of diverse literary artists, including those of color. Let's hope The New Yorker of the future gives readers a more representational tableau of the poets and writers in our world.
    Above all, any magazine that publishes poetry should have a poetry editor who's a poet (and a talented one at that). Thus, the late Howard Moss, whose own poetry merits attention, has finally been replaced as poetry editor by another talented poet.

  14. September 30, 2007
     Don Share

    Delmore Schwartz said way back in 1950 that the pages of The New Yorker "are paved with good intentions." He remarked that if its literary influence "is pernicious, it is... because there does seem to be a kind of periodical style at work in it from week to week." (He was mostly talking about the fiction and criticism; notably he doesn't mention the poetry at all.) Though not being completely negative, he worried that if you could say of something funny that it's just like a New Yorker cartoon, you can end up "finding all existence New Yorkerish." He also felt that if the magazine could afford such things as the "luxury" of Edmund Wilson's criticism, "it ought to be able to encourage in its gifted authors a greater cultivation of their own originality." That's as fine an articulation of editorial responsibility as I've seen, and not just for the editors, past and present, of The New Yorker: writers and editors alike will want to live up to it.