Mastery and Mystery
One way to think of Modernism in poetry is of fragments anxious about their origins. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote T. S. Eliot in (and of) The Waste Land in 1922. “I cannot make it cohere,” wrote Ezra Pound some fifty years later, at the end of his epic avalanche of allusions and music and madness, The Cantos. Poetry has changed a lot in the last hundred years, but it still lives with and within this tension. The best of it draws equal strength from both poles: the power of the fragment depends upon the pull of its original context; but also, the credibility of the unity that any part implies depends upon the integrity and lonely singularity of that part. There is some combination of mastery and mystery: language has been honed to unprecedented degrees of precision, but it exists within—and in some way acknowledges—some primal and nearly annihilating silence. “The beast that lives on silence,” as W.S. Graham put it, “takes/Its bite out of either side”:
I’ll give the beast a quick skelp
And through Art you’ll hear it yelp.
Mastery and mystery: add a hundred years and you have an incredibly vital and seemingly unkillable movement, for Modernism remains stubbornly, strikingly persistent even in the work of those poets who react against it. It might be too much to argue that W.S. Di Piero’s 2009 poem “Big City Speech” wouldn’t even exist without Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” which appeared in Poetry ninety-six years earlier. But still, the radiant discreteness of Di Piero’s observations; the way they seem to float in some uncontainable space; the weird piercing clarity whose meaning is only (only!) its own electric existence and the real world that sparks alive within it: listen closely, and you can hear a whole century echoing:
your gorgeous color-chart container ships
and cab-top numbers squinting in the mist
Or, less obviously, take Don Paterson’s “The Lie.” With its regular rhymes, its careful but comfortably familiar meter, its form could fit easily in the nineteenth century, at least until the bomb of its subject—a child locked in a basement, a lie trapped in a mind—explodes:
Why do you call me The Lie? he said. I swore:
it was a child’s voice. I looked up from the floor.
The dark had turned his eyes to milk and sky
and his arms and legs were all one scarlet sore.
He was a boy of maybe three or four.
His straps and chains were all the things he wore.
Knowing I could make him no reply
I took the gag before he could say more
and put it back as tight as it would tie
and locked the door and locked the door and locked the door.
Part of the horror of this poem is its vertiginous inwardness, the way it feels ripped out of some original and unrecoverable reality. In this case the source is psychological and not historical, but the same Modernist dynamic of a present reality underpinned and undermined by its missing source is at play.
Mastery and mystery: add an intrepid woman, Harriet Monroe, who wanted a magazine equal to the art and architecture she saw everywhere around her in turn-of-the-century Chicago; add ninety years of persistence and poverty, a dozen editors feeding and herding poets like feral cats; add a 200-million-dollar windfall in 2002 from the reclusive Ruth Lilly, and you have a seemingly unkillable magazine. (I wanted to steal a line from a poem by Charles Bukowski that appeared in the magazine and call our centennial anthology “The Stupidity of Our Endurance,” but not everyone shared my suicidal sense of irony.) As A.R. Ammons once wrote: “The histories of modern poetry in America and of Poetry in America are almost interchangeable, certainly inseparable.”
Almost. What an abyss of arguments and temperaments, masterpieces and missed opportunities, taste and the lack thereof open up in that word. Pretty much every post-Modernist poet of significance has published in Poetry, but not every poet has published his or her best poems there, and Don Share and I decided early on that in the anthology we would focus on poems, not names, that we would celebrate poetry, not Poetry. Thus we approached the archive just as we do the one hundred twenty thousand submissions that come into our offices each year, poem by poem, with an eye out for the unexpected—the one-off masterpiece that juts up like a mountain from the landscape you thought you knew:
The summer that my mother fell
Into the hole that was herself,
We children sat like china dolls
Waiting mutely on a shelf
For the horror to be done.
My father, who’d begun to drink
Jasmine from a turquoise cup,
Was practicing his yoga when
That dark mood swallowed Mama up.
His trance was not undone.
—From A Child’s Garden of Gods by Belle Randall
The bizarre rhetorical shriek that history and fury seem to have conspired to create:
“Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card.”
And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
You, Robert McNamara, burned what you said was a concentration
of the enemy aggressor.
No news medium troubled to put it in quotes.
—From Of Late by George Starbuck
The little-known gem by the much-anthologized master:
We have also aimed, as we always do, at an audience that is not comprised entirely of specialists, with Harriet Monroe’s first editorial firmly in mind:
We believe that there is a public for poetry, that it will grow, and that as it becomes more numerous and appreciative the work produced in this art will grow in power, in beauty, in significance.
A public for poetry. Now there’s a notion that’s been kicked around for a hundred years, especially the last twenty or so. I’ve contributed to this myself at times—rather ignominiously, it now seems to me. The discussions always begin with the assumption that, because poetry is not present in the culture in the way that, say, movies are, or even some literary fiction that captures the country’s attention for a while—then poetry has no meaning for that culture, no effect on it. Never mind the fact that this is demonstrably untrue by some practical measurements—the circulation of Poetry is much higher than it’s ever been, the Poetry Foundation’s website has two million unique blah blah—that’s not really the point. Whenever I hear this negative sentiment now, I think of the argument that roiled American politics several years ago about whether we—America, I mean—should drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Why not? We need the oil. The place being considered was so remote that it might as well have been on the moon. And as for being the breeding ground of the porcupine caribou, what the hell is a porcupine caribou? Drill, baby, drill.
The strongest argument against this action was never, to my knowledge, spoken, perhaps because it’s seemingly the weakest. It’s also completely apolitical. You don’t need to know a thing about quantum entanglement, wherein one atom can affect another even though they are separated by tremendous distance, to have some sense that our lives are always larger than the physical limitations within which they occur. We exist apart from our existences, you might say, are connected to the world and to other people in ways we will never be able to fully articulate or understand—and we assert our iron wills and ravenous hungers at our own peril. There is such a thing as a collective unconscious. There is such a thing as a spirit of place, and it reaches beyond geography. And poetry, which is a kind of quantum entanglement in language, is not simply a way of helping us to recognize the relations we have with people and places, but a means of preserving and protecting those relations. For many people, true, poetry will remain remote, inaccessible, and on the same plane of perception as that Arctic refuge. But who knows by what unconscious routes poetry is reaching into lives that seem to have nothing to do with it? Who knows what atomic energies are unleashed by a solitary man or woman quietly encountering some arrangement of language that gives their being—shunted aside by chores and fears and who knows what—back to them? This is why I regret adding to the clamor over poetry’s “relevance.” The reaction is defensive and misguided, not because there is no hope for elevating poetry’s importance, but because its power is already greater than any public attention can confer upon it.
In the American public imagination, though, poetry has a hothouse tinge to it. It’s tweedy, and tweet-y, and has little to do with the bill-paying, stock-checking, dirty-diaper lives lived by most people. Poets themselves have been partly responsible for this. We have argued over esoteric or territorial issues that no one outside of the poetry world could possibly care about. We have embalmed poems in sociology, have created a kind of machine-speak critical jargon that any sane person would simply laugh at. We have exalted poets whose verbal and associative skills are immense but who have, finally, not very much to say. H.G. Wells once famously described Henry James as a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea. He meant it to be the severest of insults, but at least there was a pea.
The tide is changing on all of this. Many contemporary poets are recognizing and reclaiming the primal power of the art they practice—and not simply on an abstract or spiritual level either. I think of Jacob Saenz’s poem “Sweeping the States,” which is about the rounding-up of illegal immigrants back in 2007:
they move in swift on the Swift
Plants in six states sift
through the faces to separate
the dark from the light
like meat seat them in
the back of vans packed tight
At the time newspapers were filled with accounts of the event. How many times have you thought of it since? What has happened to those people? Pound said that poetry is news that stays news. Thousands of people will come across this little poem now, with its deceptive lilt and tricky music, its playful way of leading us right into blindnesses we would rather not face, its skewering conclusion that connects huge and seemingly unstoppable events with decisions we all make in our daily lives; thousands of people will read this poem and it will be—if they are going to be—a thorn in their brains. I think, too, of Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” which hones in on one sound—a soft sound, paradoxically—through all sorts of playful and awful permutations, until it seems to become a sort of fist pounding the podium before an impenetrable audience. You’re the audience. And that silence ramifying around Ellis’s last line? That’s your life:
or reform or sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry
or fear of...
of terror or border.
Or all organized
Why are these poems so intricately wrought, so far from “normal” speech? Because, as Pound also said, “technique is the test of a man’s sincerity.” Formal decisions are ethical decisions. The sound and form of the poem are everything; they buffet it against its hard journey through time and indifference. Or, to change the metaphor, they enable it to insinuate itself into the hard carapace of our consciousness, so that the poem’s “message”—Look up from your insulated life, in these instances, Enlarge your idea of what it means to be human—won’t just bounce off the glaze of us. Craft matters because life matters. Craftless poetry is not only as perishable as the daily paper, it’s meretricious, disrespectful (of its subjects as well as its readers), and sometimes, as Pound implies, even unethical.
The difficulty of modern poetry—that is, poetry written since Modernism—is taken by most people as a given. One need only glance at poems like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Rendezvous,” William Matthews’s “Mingus at the Showplace,” or any number of other poems in the anthology to reveal the fallacy of that assumption. But never mind: it is true that some of the poetry written during the past hundred years or so makes extreme demands of readers. Briggflatts, by Basil Bunting, which appeared in its entirety in Poetry in 1966 and which now seems obviously one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, is sometimes taken as an exemplar of this difficulty. If you are not very familiar with poetry, you will likely have some trouble figuring out exactly what is being described, which is fine, which is, in fact, exactly what he intended. Besides being “about” a man who realizes, way too late, that the most intense and defining experience of his life occurred during an adolescent love affair, Briggflatts is a palimpsest of history, nature, learning, loss. It is the testament and artifact of a man who has lived so thoroughly into the language, so thoroughly through the language, that it has become a purely expressive medium. Because of cadence and pacing, and the way sounds echo and intensify sense, the word is restored to a kind of primal relation with the world: language itself has taken on the textures and heft of things:
Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
As a general rule, it’s safe to say that if you can paraphrase a poem, it’s not a poem. There’s no other way of saying what Bunting is saying in Briggflatts. The language is action. Great poetry is usually difficult in some way, and then clear in ways we would never expect (“It is easier to die than to remember.”) Its difficulty, you might say, makes new clarities possible in and for us. “I wanted to write a poem/that you would understand,” wrote William Carlos Williams,
for what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard.
Part of the enjoyment of poetry—an enormous part—is letting yourself experience things you do not understand, letting the textures and rhythms of verse take you to places in your consciousness—and unconsciousness—that you could not have accessed otherwise. E.E. Cummings’s “what if a much of a which of a wind” is an obvious example: to have its rare near-clarities mean anything (“all nothing’s only our hugest home”) you have to let yourself be blown around in the word-wind for a while. But the example needn’t be so conspicuous: Denise Levertov’s “Our Bodies” is a little master class in free verse, and if you don’t read it the way its line breaks dictate—don’t feel its form happening viscerally in you—then its effect is not simply diminished but actually distorted. Take the opening three lines:
Our bodies, still young under
the engraved anxiety of our
The mind naturally wants to read these lines like this:
Our bodies, still young
under the engraved anxiety
of our faces
But this completely changes the meaning and effect of the lines. It is one thing to say that a body is “still young,” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact. Similarly, the awkward pause at the end of the second line intensifies the sensation of anxiety being described, and that word “our” that’s stranded unnaturally there for a moment enhances one’s feeling for, and sensation of, the precarious marriage of loneliness and communion that marks any authentic love.
The point here is not to go through every poem nitpicking technique, trying to find some obvious “reason” for every formal decision. No, the point is simply to be aware that what may seem like awkwardness or even randomness in poetry (James Schuyler!) can be as formally severe and singular as any Bach fugue.
Most poets I know read almost unconsciously at first, feeling the poem’s formal and linguistic dynamics as much as its “meaning” (in the end, there is no way to separate meaning from a poem’s form and sound). Meaning matters, of course, and most poems do have some bedrock denotative sense upon which the mind can rest. But still, some mystery usually remains. Poetry, like life, has its patches of pure black, its furthest interiors where meaning gleams darkly, and must remain in that darkness if it is to mean at all. You know a good poem by whether or not those irreducible dark spots are integral to your experience of the whole. “Our only obscurities...should be those we are driven into,” Ruth Pitter once wrote, “then a sort of blessing may descend, making such obscurity magical.”
“Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry.” That’s Bunting again. It’s a statement worth keeping in mind when reading every single poem you come across.
One of the qualities essential to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life: a capacity for surprise. It’s easy to become so mired in our likes or dislikes that we can no longer recall that person who once responded to poems—and to people—without any preconceived notions of what we wanted them to be. The irony is that one of poetry’s powers is to reanimate a reality that has gone gray for us, or maybe not gray, maybe perfectly pleasant but ungraspable somehow, the days flashing past like images seen from a train. Time seems to accelerate as we get older because the brain becomes habituated to its circumstances and surroundings—the bills, the commutes, the kiss on the cheek goodnight—and part of it shuts down. Then you look up and a decade seems to have slipped right through your fingers. “And yet, the ways we miss our lives,” wrote Randall Jarrell, “are life.”
Poetry cuts right into this glaze (like that line from Jarrell, for instance), in two ways. First, it simply gives us access to a new world and new experience (you might have been familiar with Northumbrian gravestone-making before Bunting, but I wasn’t); second, and more crucially, it enlivens the lives we thought we knew, it slows them down, or gives us eyes more capable of perceiving their passing. It makes us see the latent strangeness within—and feel our dormant spirits beneath—numb habit.
Consider Craig Arnold, a forty-two-year-old poet who vanished three years ago while hiking a remote volcano in Japan. As fate would have it, Don and I read his poem “Meditation on a Grapefruit” the very day that he disappeared, and the poem so shocked us out of our own mental insulation that we immediately sent off the acceptance e-mail that Craig would never see. Such a tiny thing, “To come to the kitchen/and peel a little basketball/for breakfast” on a day like any other; to feel and smell “a cloud of oil/misting out of its pinprick pores/clean and sharp as pepper,” to adhere to this “discipline” that is “precisely pointless”:
a pause a little emptiness
each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without
Why write poetry? I don’t mean just the “professional” poet (there is no such thing), the poet whose life is ineluctably bound up with, and confusingly shunted aside by, words—but also the undergraduate who finds herself spending more time on her creative writing assignments than anything else, the judge who scrawls a quatrain on the back of an envelope, the housewife who keeps a journal which she’d burn before showing to anyone. Why this obsession so widespread in our culture, and why is it found in every culture we know?
Lisel Mueller has one answer, in a poem that appeared in Poetry in 1987. Stunned by the death of her mother, the speaker of this poem—an adolescent presumably, though the age is not specified—wanders out to the “lovingly planted garden” where the “day lilies were as deaf/as the ears of drunken sleepers/and the roses curved inward.” Here is how the poem ends:
I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
—From When I Am Asked
Implicit in that last line is an assumption that language is a living thing, with a kind of consciousness, that it returns or reciprocates the attention that is turned toward it. Not just any attention, though, but only our fullest and most costly consciousness, only our whole selves honed by emotional extremity. Language has no life unless and until we give it ours:
“The poetic gift won’t tolerate vanity,” writes Nadezhda Mandelstam. This might come as a surprise to anyone who has suffered through supper with some bloviating laureate, or even endured an ordinary open-mic night at any local bar. It’s important to point out, then, that what Mandelstam means has little to do with the poet as a public presence and everything to do with the solitary self that blindly senses its way toward—and very rarely joltingly suffers—his gift. Many poets go out into the world like cockeyed roosters (the masculine symbol is not accidental; women seem, in my experience, better at managing this dynamic) precisely because they feel the negligible control they have over the very thing for which they are praised; it is a compensatory gesture, and a protective one. And what is true of the consciousness of the artist, that it must be vulnerable, must remain open to a power that it can never own—“Think assailable thoughts,” writes Jane Hirshfield, “or be lonely”—is true of the work of art. It must be assailable in some sense. When Wallace Stevens argues against Christianity in his most famous poem “Sunday Morning,” which appeared in Poetry in November 1915; when he says that “Death is the mother of beauty” and Christianity is a flinch away from the beauty and integrity of a fully-lived life, it is crucial to the effect of the poem that he makes his argument in grand Biblical cadences that recall—and even confusingly reawaken—all the splendor of what he is ostensibly renouncing. Similarly, in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” which seems to be a straightforward celebration of the absolute power and self-sufficiency of the individual imagination, simply the fact that Stevens includes a “you” to dispute that assertion, and that the “you” sees the speaker’s self-sufficiency as utter loneliness, haunts—and paradoxically intensifies—the effect of his final claim: And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Religion often seems a bit crude when thinking of poems—a dimming of energy, part of the critical intelligence, an encrustation. There is an animus, an élan vital, a force that moves through verse at the speed of God. To assert this—to assent to it—is not idolatry but humility. Religion is human; it’s what one does with intense spiritual experience; it’s necessary (for some) but secondary. There is in poetry a power, a presence, coextensive with our earliest instincts, including those that drove us to create religions. That’s why even poems that seem to renounce religion can mysteriously restore one’s feeling for it, because without that original charge of heart and blood, without that first marriage of word and world, all that has emerged subsequently is merely intellectual, and lifeless. Most “devotional” poetry of the past hundred years is aimed at this ur-impulse, at sparking it back to life:
This focus, I think, this primary fidelity, is why even the modern poems that deal with spiritual matters directly tend to avoid specific religions. T.S. Eliot’s late work is a marked exception, and powerful for being so. So is Mary Karr’s “Disgraceland,” though her fast-talking confession and apparently flippant (it isn’t, really) tone reveal her uneasiness and ambivalence about assenting to the structure of given religion.
Eventually, I lurched out
to kiss the wrong mouths, get stewed,
and sulk around. Christ always stood
to one side with a glass of water.
I swatted the sap away.
When my thirst got great enough to ask,
a clear stream welled up inside,
some jade wave buoyed me forward,
and I found myself upright
in the instant, with a garden
inside my own ribs aflourish.
I love how this poem’s scattershot proliferation of images, which mirrors the speaker’s lifelong confusion, gains focus near the end. Even the language slows down—“some jade wave buoyed me forward”—as if the whole poem were concentrating on what came next. This, too, is the province of poetry, to reattach rituals to their sources, to make us feel the radical strangeness of actions we may have come to take for granted:
There, the arbor leafs.
The vines push out plump grapes.
You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it.
For the past century the emphasis in American poetry has been on the lyric, and when we talk about lyric poetry we tend to think of emotional inwardness, even when the details of a given poem may be completely external. James Wright’s “The Blessing” is a classic example: the details of the natural world are rendered with a kind of inner spiritual precision that enables the poet almost, but not quite, to transcend them:
Suddenly I realize
that if I stepped out of my body I would break
But the lyric is not limited to inward experience. Thom Gunn’s “Lines for a Book” is a lyric poem, but there is no sense of inwardness at all, no mystery emanating off of it. Gunn had little patience with anything that smacked of Romantic effluvia. As it happens, I lived around the corner from him for a time in San Francisco. With his heroic height and Spartan crewcut, his motorcycle boots and black leather jacket, he would have been menacing had he not been so disconcertingly courteous—the impeccable English accent helped—and kind. But still, Gunn savored places most of us would fear to enter, and when he wrote about “toughs,” as he did frequently, he did so with the authority that comes from direct experience:
To be insensitive, to steel the will,
Than sit irresolute all day at stool
Inside the heart.
I don’t know who Gunn was referring to here, but it might have been the great German Modernist Rainer Maria Rilke (“Everything is disappearing inward”) or, more likely, the many American imitators who tamed his terrible Angels with teabag mysticism and predictable epiphanies. (To experienced readers, the end of “The Blessing” may seem a familiar move by this point, but it was shocking and radical when it was written—and the poem, for all its soft spots, retains an eerie, affecting power.) Gunn wanted to obliterate personality in his poetry; his great models were the poets of the English Renaissance. It was a directly opposite tack to that of the Confessional poets, whose perceptions had everything to do with the personalities from which they emanated. Sylvia Plath is thought of as one of the first Confessional poets, but this is not really accurate. With her extreme staginess, the blurred sense of self and speaker, the carefully projected hysteria, her work, in terms of how much personality is in play, actually has more in common with Gunn’s than with the Confessional poets she is thought to have spawned. James Wright’s “The Blessing,” on the other hand, for all of its apparent focus outward, is a poem in which you can not only feel a distinct personality (tender-hearted, mystically inclined) but its absolute necessity to the effect of the poem. Others in the book include the William Matthews and Mary Karr poems I’ve already mentioned. The speakers of these latter poems are like lively, idiosyncratic, first-person narrators of good novels—with all the rewards and limitations thereof.
A writer who grows up in a bookless culture—“the folk from whom all poetry flows,” as Lorine Niedecker puts it, “and dreadfully much else”—will always be torn by conflicting impulses. On one hand, the Culture she acquires—she will always think of it with a capital C—separates her from the culture in which she was raised. On the other, everything in her that might animate her intellectual acquisitions is rooted in the world she has left. The novelist and poet (and frequent Poetry contributor) Reynolds Price once spoke of the terrible risk a writer takes by uprooting herself from her native place. But it’s also a risk not to leave, as it sometimes requires distance to clearly see the place—James Joyce’s Ireland, say—in which one came to consciousness.
The anthology begins with a famous little poem by the consummate Modernist Ezra Pound, who left Hailey, Idaho at the age of eighteen and spent his life acquiring world culture with an assiduity that was as impressive as it was impossible, like a python trying to swallow a camel. The anthology ends with a late poem of W.B. Yeats, who certainly didn’t grow up in a bookless culture (his father was a famous painter) but nonetheless felt the tension between his literary aspirations and his geographical inspirations. Though he was a fixture in literary London for decades, and though his international voice and acclaim eventually brought him a Nobel Prize, Yeats remained staunchly connected and committed to Ireland, even if that Ireland was in part a dream. “The Fisherman,” one of the most beautiful poems Yeats ever wrote, captures all the simplicity and complexity of this relation:
Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”
Every poem in The Open Door is situated somewhere on this spectrum between life and learning, between linguistic powers honed to surgical precisions and the messy living reality out of which all language, if it would stay alive, must be rooted.
For if it is true that the closer bound the artist is to his community the harder it is for him to see with a detached vision, it is also true that when he is too isolated, though he may see clearly enough what he does see, that dwindles in quantity and importance.
This authoritative quote from W.H. Auden is illuminating, useful, and wrong. It expresses (more succinctly) some of what I’ve said above, but it hasn’t (and how could it?) taken into account what the word “community” might mean and how our notions of that would change over the years. Adrian Blevins might not speak for a community bound by highways and mores, but the one she does speak for in “How To Cook a Wolf”—“the dumbstruck story of the American female”—is considerably larger. Rae Armantrout—whose entire work, by the way, might be read as an acerbic reaction to, or defiant expansion of, lyric poetry—also addresses or mirrors our worries of community, in this life and the next, and with a dash of weird and welcome humor that might make you underestimate her seriousness:
Hectic and flexible,
new bodies for us!
For all the canons and anthologies, for every rock-solid reputation and critical consensus, poetry is personal or it is nothing. That is, until a poem has been tested on your own pulse, to paraphrase John Keats, until you have made up your own mind and heart about where you stand in relation to it, and it to you—until this happens, all poetry is merely literature, all reading rote. It’s true that some people are better readers of poetry than others; that some people’s judgment matters (for the culture as a whole) more than others; that, just as with music or art, there are elements of craft and historical perspective essential to being able to formulate a meaningful response. But still: poetry is made up of poems, and poems repulse and entice in unpredictable ways, and anyone who reads independently and spiritedly is going to carry an eccentric canon around in his head. This is half the fun of it all.
Reading through a hundred years of Poetry, week after week of issue after issue, some forty thousand poems in all, Don Share and I, when we weren’t rendered prone and moaning, jolted back and forth between elation and depression. Here’s a hundred pages of work by a Pulitzer Prize winner, whose poems, just a couple of decades after his death, feel ambered in a dead idiom. Here’s two hundred pages of poems that stirred contemporaries to comparisons of Shakespeare, without one moment now that seems fresh, necessary, worth saving. Here’s poet after poet whose names you’ve never even heard, some with lines that leap up out of poems like the limb of a prodded lab frog, then flop back down in the cold poems to which they are ineluctably bound. On the other hand, here’s Josephine Miles, whose work I’d never even paused over, and the irascible, irrepressible Paul Goodman, and James Laughlin with his wonderful winking ambition to be nothing more than a footnote, perhaps in “the Obloquies of//Dreadful Edward Dahlberg.” Or Dahlberg! How badly we wanted to include his weird prose piece titled—aggressively, no doubt—“Five Poems.” “My friendship with Dahlberg,” Fanny Howe writes in Poetry half a century later, after giving a heartbreaking sense of the man’s volatile intensity and prophetic authority, his absolute seriousness of purpose, “ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down.” And that’s how it is, this life in poetry, the pathos mixed right in with the bathos, the heroic sense of purpose with the pathetic pull of circumstance. “What do you do,” asks the man on the airplane, and for a moment every American poet pauses as one, feeling that face-off between spiritual integrity and social insecurity. And that’s sort of what we feel too, Don and I, after being buried under a hundred years of poems. Humility, first: to think of all the lives behind this work, and the element of chance that has made us, for a moment, the judges of it. And pride: to be a part of it, to have our own lives so richly entangled.
This essay is an edited version of the introduction to The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine, published by the University of Chicago Press.
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 disassembling—musical and...