Editorial: In Praise of Rareness
"My point here is not to illustrate how badly most poetry ages, nor to present some sort of 'long perspective' by which to judge a contemporary journal. Because one generation's treasures are the next generation's jokes does not invalidate the earlier meanings people may have found."
Every time we print an issue of Poetry that has more prose than poetry in it, we get at least one letter of complaint. These complaints vary in tone and temperateness, but inevitably there are sentences which run something like this: "Given the nature of your journal, and given its very name, what's with all the prose? Couldn't you use those pages for more poems? Shouldn't poetry be your emphasis?"
Well, yes and no. Yes, poetry should be (and most definitely is) our emphasis; but no, that does not necessarily translate into publishing more of it. In fact, I think a strong case can be made that the more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs. There is a limit to this logic, of course, or else Plato would be the patron saint of the art. But still, an overdeveloped appetite for poetry is no guarantee of taste or even of love, and institutionalized efforts at actually encouraging the over-consumption of poetry always seem a bit freakish, ill-conceived, and peculiarly American, like those mythic truck stops where anyone who can eat his own weight in rump roast doesn't have to pay for it.
Reading through old literary journals is not an activity I would ordinarily recommend, but it can be instructive in this context. People who know the history of Poetry usually point to a couple of indisputably high moments, the first under Harriet Monroe, who published the early work of just about all of the major Modernists; and the second under Henry Rago, who was on the whole more eclectic and adventurous than Monroe. It's interesting, then, to look at a couple of memorable issues from those times.
In June 1915 Monroe, in a now-famous story, took the advice of Poetry's foreign correspondent, Ezra Pound, and printed the first published poem of T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The other contributors of verse in that issue include Skipwith Cannéll, William Griffith, Georgia Wood Pangborn, Dorothy Dudley, Bliss Carman, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Ajan Syrian, all of whose work sounds pretty much like this:
O leaves, O leaves that find no voice
In the white silence of the snows,
To bid the crimson woods rejoice,
Or wake the wonder of the rose!
Just over forty years later, when Rago was editor, Sylvia Plath made her first appearance in the magazine with six poems that, though not representative of Plath at her best, nevertheless practically blaze with radiance beside the poems of Lysander Kemp, Louis Johnson, Edith Tiempo, William Belvin, August Kadow, etc., etc.
My point here is not to illustrate how badly most poetry ages, nor to present some sort of "long perspective" by which to judge a contemporary journal. Because one generation's treasures are the next generation's jokes does not invalidate the earlier meanings people may have found. It's quite possible that for many people those now-indistinguishable poems alongside "Prufrock" provided just the provocation or consolation they needed on a bad day, or caused them to look at their immediate world not, Lord knows, with new eyes, but at least with old eyes, at least to look. (And in fact the general reaction to "Prufrock" was decidedly negative.) Time is the ultimate test of art, but it is not the only test of art. It is possible for a work that will not survive its own time to nevertheless speak truly to that time. For us, coming across passages like those I've just quoted is like discovering some foul, furred thing at the back of the refrigerator: one's whole spirit winces. But for someone somewhere they were once fresh. What happened then is happening now, I guarantee you. It is the bliss and curse of being alive.
But that's a digression. The point I want to make here has to do with the prose in these issues, which in both cases remains surprisingly fresh, readable, even relevant. In the 1913 issue there is a memorable, sharply-worded piece by Ezra Pound, which, ironically, fulsomely praises the utterly forgotten poetry of T. Sturge Moore. In the issue edited by Rago, there are excellent reviews by Thom Gunn and Charles Tomlinson, as well as an astute piece on verse drama by William Meredith. This tendency is borne out by other back issues of Poetry (issues old enough to allow for some perspective, I mean). The poetry is pretty much a steady backdrop of competence for the occasional and (now) unmistakable masterpieces. The prose is surprisingly consistent in its quality and appeal.
Does it follow from this that prose is the more durable art? Of course not. No one is reading that prose I just mentioned, nor is there any particular reason why they should be. Critical prose exists solely for the sake of the moment in which it is written. Its function is either to bring to light some work from the past that has been neglected or misunderstood for the sake of enlarging and refining contemporary consciousness, or to help readers know what contemporary works to read, and how to read them. The bulk of the critical prose that survives is written by famous poets, and it survives only because the poetry of these people has survived. There are a few exceptions to this, but in general aiming at eternity with critical prose is like praying to a potato. You may very well get God's attention, but probably only because He likes a good laugh.
Is prose simply easier to write than poetry? Again, not necessarily. Prose can be damnably difficult to write, but it's been my experience that one can always will oneself to write it. Right now, for instance, because I am busy and lazy in equal measure, I am bashing these sentences out hurriedly before the issue goes to the printer. I think we can all agree that what I am writing here is not, let us say, for the ages. But perhaps at least a majority of us can also agree that it is written in perfectly adequate prose. All sorts of useful things may be written in perfectly adequate prose: editorials, history, philosophy, theology, even lasting novels. But there is no such thing as a perfectly adequate poem, because a poem into which some strange and surprising excellence has not entered, a poem that is not in some inexplicable way beyond the will of the poet, is not a poem.
The truth is, sometimes poetry is almost embarrassingly easy to write. There are the famous stories: Keats writing "Ode to a Nightingale" in a single morning, Coleridge channeling "Kubla Kahn," Milton essentially taking dictation from God (or perhaps from the Devil, because that's who came out looking better) while writing Paradise Lost. But besides these instances, just about every poet admits to some simultaneous feeling of helplessness and unaccustomed power in the writing of his best poems, some element of mystery. "If you do not believe in poetry," Wallace Stevens once wrote, "you cannot write it," and indeed this is the chief "difficulty" in poetry, that it comes so infrequently, that it remains beyond our will.
Anyone involved with the institutions of poetry would do well to remember this. With all the clamor in this country about the audience for poetry, a veritable barnyard of noise into which I myself have been known to bray, we shouldn't lose sight of one of poetry's chief strengths: how little of it there is. I don't mean how little there is in the culture, but how little there is at any one time that is truly excellent. Poetry's invisibility is deplorable and worth fighting. Its rareness is admirable and the chief source of its strength. Indeed, I sometimes think that if we honored its rarity more, poetry's invisibility would be less of a problem, or at least we might define the notion of visibility differently. Seamus Heaney has noted that if a person has a single poem in his head, one that he returns to and through which, even in small ways, he understands his life better, this constitutes a devotion to the art. It is enough. And in fact I find that this is almost always how non-specialists read poetry—rarely, sparingly, but intensely, with a handful of high moments that they cling to. The emphasis is on the memorable individual poem, and poetry in bulk is rarely memorable.
All of this ought to have implications for the writer of poems as well. If poetry is so rare in the world, if so much of it is dross, just think how much rarer it must surely be in your (our!) own work. There is nothing wrong with thinking of poetry as a process, with developing a way of writing that allows you to churn out verse. Nothing wrong with it, that is, unless you give up all attempt at discrimination and insist on publishing all of these efforts. It may not be the case that anyone who is writing a book of poems every two or three years is writing too much, but he or she is certainly publishing too much. The great thing about writers like Hopkins, Larkin, Bishop, Bunting, Eliot, Herbert, Justice, and Bogan is that they demanded more from their work than anyone else did, and their discipline and dissatisfaction are now our pleasure.
What might all this mean for a literary magazine? Sixty years ago George Dillon and Hayden Carruth, who were then editors of this magazine, created a firestorm when they published an issue that had a mere eleven pages of verse in it. They explained their actions by saying that there simply weren't enough poems on hand that merited publication, and that to have lowered the bar of admittance would have been to lower the prestige of the magazine. It's impossible to know whether or not they were justified, because it's impossible to recover the material from which they were choosing. My suspicion, though, being familiar with Carruth's work as an anthologist and critic, and having edited this magazine myself for several years, is that they were. I also suspect that it was not at all a denigration of poetry, but an exaltation of it.
Poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman was raised in West Texas and earned a BA at Washington and Lee University. A former Guggenheim fellow, Wiman served as the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. He received an honorary doctorate from North Central College. Making use of—and at times gently...