Changing of the Guard
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which seems little more than an anecdote with some occasional rhymes (and I’d remind you that “anecdote” is Greek for “unpublished”), though the title gestures at larger implications.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.
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,...