Rachel Zucker: “Is it more important to you that your poems be timeless or timely?”

I want my poems to be as good as I can make them. Timely or timeless doesn’t address that. I understand this to be a question about the journalistic content of poetry, or else a question about an individual writer’s relationship to current fashions in poetry. Of the latter, shrug. Of the former, this reminds me of magazine/newspaper editor questions: What’s your hook? Why this article, why now. And yet, isn’t there only one answer?

Clearly, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, is there a timeless poem that isn’t also timely, or a timely poem which, as long as it’s a good poem, isn’t a candidate for timelessness?

When Frank O’Hara has lunch with then-Leroi Jones in “Personal Poem” after admiring some construction workers’ silver hats, the two hipster poets both discover they like Herman Melville better than Henry James and prefer Don Allen to Lionel Trilling—thus helping to fix their personae—and also talk about Miles Davis getting clubbed by a cop, so that the poem, trivial in its tone and timely in cultural reference, is also big and about race and the 1950s. Timeless? Timely? You decide:

Or take Emily Dickinson: isn’t it true that even if she never ever referenced a single thing going on at the time outside the world of 280 Main Street in Amherst MA, there’s something distinctly 19th C. American in her strange relationship to matters of the spirit?

This is like the many different movie and BBC miniseries versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Costume dramas all, for which clearly plenty of research was done into the look of the period. Yet who couldn’t tell immediately which one was from which decade of the 20th Century. Timely or timeless?

My tendency, watching any Pride and Predjudice, is to wonder, why do so many British actresses from whatever decade slouch? Do they not take ballet lessons as young girls?

My tendency with a poem is to wonder how I can get this word, that line break, this bit of syntax, that comma to get my poem to tilt until it almost crashes, then doesn’t.

Crash, I mean. Though maybe it would be more timely? timeless? for it to crash.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2011

Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.