Fall 2014 / Spring 2015
1. TODAY: Being a discussion of the place of “Poetry” in contemporary poetry.
Let's talk about “Poetry,” not the literary genre, but the journal — that monumental edifice in the middle of the contemporary poetry scene — & if you're reading this, you're likely well aware of the journal & the position it occupies. In today’s hooked-up, linked-in, socially-connected world, there are likely zillions of outlets for poetry … ranging from the fusty medium of paper, through Internet Websites, to blogs … to simply sending one’s latest composition to an ever-growing mailing list … not to mention various concatenations of the above, i.e. print journals with websites etc. (Consider here, for a moment, that you’re reading this piece on a website … & quite possibly you became aware of it, because of an email I sent you. My purpose in making this observation is not to make you, the reader, feel discomfited … only to alert you to how many venues are now available.)
If you are a working poet looking to build a career, looking to be seen on the scene, there are, as noted above, a seemingly endless number of contemporary venues. And there are almost as many ways to achieve public recognition, as there are poets, but all those ways, on their way to wider recognition, must pass through a few common points. Exempli gratis — the rise, in the public eye, of Patricia Lockwood. (Note : this is not intended as a snipe at Patricia Lockwood.) Her career began, and has subsequently been propelled, by the Internet — various poetry message boards, and most notably, Twitter. Validation came with publication in The New Yorker and Poetry. As an aside, while those two venues are among the most, if not the most, prominent venues, The New Yorker is the less critical. Publishing only two poems per issue, it has little influence on the course of contemporary poetry, nor has it had in the past. I'm not disparaging the poetry that appears there. But it doesn't so much anoint, as it ordains. On the other hand, appearance in Poetry is often an important step in a poet’s career. And it has been this way for more than a hundred years.
2. YESTERDAY: Being a discussion of how “Poetry” came to its current condition.
The history of poetry in 20th century America, the history of "Modernism" for that matter, was written in “small journals”. Though they may never have been of wide circulation, they were influential well beyond their size. Any literary history of the period, beginning in the first decades of the 20th century, is bound to mention magazines such The Dial, The Hound and the Horn, The Little Magazine, and foremost among them Poetry. Marianne Moore served as an editor for The Dial; Ezra Pound acted as their foreign correspondent at about the same time he was acting in the same position for Poetry; and The Hound and Horn, founded by Lincoln Kirstein, printed the likes of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and a young Elizabeth Bishop. Some of the journals (like The Dial) lasted off-&-on for some years — a few years in the 1840’s, and then 1880 to 1929; others, like The Hound and the Horn, flared across the firmament for a few years — seven, in this instance — and then disappeared forever. Poetry, however endured. According to one reference source, Poetry “became the principal organ for modern poetry of the English-speaking world.” And as A. R. Ammons observed, “ … the histories of modern poetry in America and of “Poetry” in America are almost interchangeable, certainly inseparable.”
To recount the well-rehearsed, Poetry was founded in 1912, in Chicago, by Harriet Monroe. In the mission statement for “Poetry,” which did not appear until the second issue, she wrote, in part, The open door will be the policy of this magazine … To this end the editors hope to keep free of entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or are under what theory it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions.
Easier said than done. To begin with, she selected, as her foreign correspondent, Ezra Pound, easily one of the most contentious figures in twentieth century poetry. Even though Pound’s direct involvement in the journal only lasted a year or two, Monroe continued to correspond with him, publish his work, and entertain his opinions. Monroe seemed to continue the pattern of inviting contention when, for example, she added Yvor Winters, equally opinionated and argumentative, to the editorial staff. That Monroe was able to rise above entangling alliances, warring camps, and other various schools, and hew to her original mission, is testament to her resolve as an editor; and it set the tone of the magazine. (She died in 1936.) In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time, in the past century or more, when poetry wasn’t beset by some form of contention, even up until the current editors. Still, Monroe’s original mission, instilled in virtually all of the subsequent editors, allowed the journal to rise above such contretemps — to its greater success … and likely to its longevity. The history of the journal, when Monroe was alive, and surely afterward, has been one of changing editors, shifting tastes, and a never-ending search for funding. (Note that much of the above was gleaned from Joseph Parisi’s very informative introduction to his anthology. Not long after he wrote that introduction, the Ruth Lilly Foundation bequeathed $100 million dollars to Poetry, insuring the journal’s survival until the next millennium.)
Poetry is now more than 100 years old. It has reached the point, in the aging of any such institution, where an older generation looks back, to fix their place in the course of events that led to now; and another generation looks to where that institution is heading. At hand, are two anthologies — The Poetry Anthology,” edited by Joseph Parisi & Stephen Young, and The Open Door, edited by Don Share (the current editor of Poetry) & Christian Wiman (his predecessor); and each purporting to fix the edifice that is Poetry in the landscape that is American culture. (Spoiler alert — they both succeed, in very different ways, on their own terms.)
3. P & Y: Being a judicious discussion regarding “The Poetry Anthology,” edited by Joseph Parisi & Stephen Young.
In 2002, as he was about to depart as editor-in-chief, Joseph Parisi pulled together an anthology, celebrating 90 years of the magazine's existence. That the magazine was still publishing after all that time was miracle enough, as Parisi's introduction makes clear. Most often rumors of the journal's impending doom were the result of imminently running out of funding. Somehow though, someone always seemed to come up with enough to put out another issue. Though there may have been spats and other such contretemps between editors and advisors (as noted above, Monroe quickly got into it with Pound), the editors have been surprisingly adept at riding above the storms.
Parisi’s anthology is, to say the least, bountiful. Weighing in at more than 500 pages (including a 50-page introduction, almost 490 pages of poetry, and an index), this is one fat book — it aims to be the ultimate “Poetry” anthology. And in that regard, it succeeds. But if A. R. Ammons is right (see quote above), that the history of modern American poetry is inextricably linked to the history of "Poetry" (and I believe he is right), than this anthology seems to beg the question what unique value does this anthology offer. After all, so many of the poems included here can be found in any number of better known, and more widely distributed, anthologies. Take “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” to pick one example. Any number of Norton anthologies ? Check. Any number of Oxford anthologies ? Check. In fact, almost any anthology of 20th century poetry, be it from large publisher or small, will likely have that poem.
That said, there are a number of reasons that speak to the significance of Parisi’s anthology, but there is one particularly important value, and two ancillary values. First, (and most important) the poems are restored to the context within which they originally appeared. That context underscores the significance of Monroe’s original vision — that the magazine would not be home to any particular school. I would venture that the longevity of the journal is, in no small measure, the result of adhering (more or less) to her original “mission statement”.
To illustrate. Within the first three years of its existence, “Poetry” published such touchstones of modern American poetry as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” and T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” early poems by William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost, as well as William Butler Yeats’s “The Magi,” Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (which gave us the immortal lines “If I should die, think only this of me : / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England …”) and Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”. Read that last sentence again. Yes, “Trees,” that much maligned chestnut, first appeared in “Poetry,” in the company of such bulwarks of Modernism as the poems of Pound and Eliot. (Monroe often claimed it was one of the most popular poems she published.) Parisi, to his credit, includes all of the above poems in his anthology … and so much more. In sum, the breadth of what was published was equal to the depth.
Which leads to the two ancillary values mentioned above. First, the anthology brings back into the reader’s field of vision poets who have slipped from notice over the past 90 years, particularly some of the poets who appeared in the earlier years, such as Richard Aldington, Winifred Bryher, and Kay Boyle (to name just a few), as well as even more recent poets, such as Anthony Hecht, David Ignatow, and Amy Clampitt, who are less talked about these days. It also offers a taste of contemporary poets who may not be as widely anthologized as others, including Rika Lesser, Alice Fulton, and Agha Shahid Ali.
Equally as important, if not more so, Parisi and Young have restored the poems to the form they took when they first appeared in the magazine. This can, on occasion, be quite unsettling, shifting a reader’s understanding of poems that may have seemed quite familiar. To cite one example, if you glance through the Table of Contents, you’ll note that Wallace Stevens is represented by two sequences of poems — Pecksniffiana and Sur Ma Guzzla Gracile. The former includes “Fabliau of Florida,” and “Anecdote of the Jar”; the latter includes “The Snow Man,” and “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”. In most anthologies, these poems appear individually, without acknowledgement that they were parts of sequences; and in Stevens’ collected works, the sequences have been thoroughly broken up. Likewise, T. S. Eliot is represented by a sequence (titled “Observations”) whose contents appear elsewhere as individual poems.
4. S & W: Being a judicious discussion regarding “The Open Door,” edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman.
In 2012, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Poetry,” Christian Wiman, then the editor of “Poetry” (he has since gone on to direct The Poetry Foundation), and Don Share, then the Senior Editor (he has since gone on to become the Editor) decided to do their own anthology. Wisely, they choose not to try to replicate what Parisi and Young had done, with a few poems added on. Their anthology, though I almost hesitate to call it that, is titled The Open Door.
I have long said, elsewhere and often, that an anthology is a work of criticism. Most anthologies make use of some extrinsic feature to order the poems (or the poets) —chronology … country … even, in the case of Parisi and Young, order of appearance in an influential journal. Whatever. For most editors, deciding on that structure is easy enough, if not virtually pre-determined. The scutwork in such anthologies lies in slogging through all the works that could appear, to find those few that should appear. On the other hand, there are those few anthologies organized around certain intrinsic features of the poems. Anthologies like Yvor Winters’ collection “Quest for Reality,” Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry,” even Richard Kostelanetz’s “The Possibilities of Poetry”. Here the reasons for gathering certain poems together may not be initially self-evident. Rather they may have to be teased out, as one reads the individual selections, and catches glints in the interactions between the poems.
The Open Door fits the latter description of an anthology organized around intrinsic criteria. Hence my comment above that I almost hesitate to call this book an “anthology”. Still, this is an anthology (and most definitely not a “miscellany”). The starting point of Wiman & Share’s anthology is an introductory essay by Wiman that begins with the deliberately provocative assertion, “One way to think of Modernism in poetry is of fragments anxious about their origins.” So, with this collection, Wiman and Share hope to define “Modernism,” and descry a thread running from those first years, through the work appearing up to their centennial celebration … or, put another way, to show how contemporary poetry has been refracted through the prism of what had been done in the preceding century.
“Modern” — like it’s cousins “new” and “genuine” — was a term much bandied about in the furibund debates, during the past century, between various classes, schools, movements, et. al. And so “Modernism,” as an aesthetic stance, is perhaps best described in hindsight — how these poems led to … how others were influenced by ... how some were reactions to .… And that seems to be Wiman's starting point ... though he goes into considerably more detail and argument as he attempts to make his definition of what poetry was, what it is, and what it should be. His essay is critical (pun intended) to reading his anthology, because it informs not only the choice of poems, but how those poems are grouped together. His arguments are too complex to do justice to in a few short sentences. If one cares about contemporary American poetry, there is much to chew on, and to its credit, much to argue with, in Wiman’s essay … all the more so as one proceeds through his and Share’s anthology.
As sub-titled, and as delivered, this is “100 Poems, taken from 100 Years of Poetry Magazine”. That said, almost a third of those 100 poems appeared after Parisi's 2002 anthology. The remaining two-thirds are scattered through the preceding nine decades, with a slight emphasis on the 50's and 60's. & although I don’t remember this being explicitly stated, it appears no poet appears more than once. As a result, this anthology includes poets who weren’t included in Parisi & Young’s anthology, and are not often anthologized, such as Lorine Niedecker, Rhina Espaillat, and Ruth Stone. Overall, in fact, there is surprisingly little overlap between both poets and poems.
One hundred poems; one hundred poets. The poems are organized in small groups, generally four or five; and those groups are separated by free-standing prose snippets — the prose having been taken from the comments section of the magazine, or from correspondence between the editors and poets. As Wiman notes at the outset, the prose is not meant to suggest themes. The prose pieces do however help establish an emotional atmosphere for poems. To illustrate, one not atypical grouping begins with a prose observation from Jean Garrigue, from August 1957. The poems are, in order, James Wright’s “The Blessing” (March, 1961), Robinson Jeffers’ “Grass on the Cliff” (January 1928), W. S. Di Piero’s “Big City Speech” (June 2009), an excerpt from a long work by Cid Corman (February 1983), and Richard Wilbur’s “Hamlen Brook” (October 1982). An interesting enough grouping as it stands, but all the more remarkable when one considers that the editors were limited to only those poems that had appeared in “Poetry”.
Despite it’s relatively small size, (how many anthologies consist of only 100 poems? Even the aforementioned Yvor Winters’ anthology contained several hundred poems), this is a difficult collection to easily describe. On the other hand, it is worth observing that one most often turns to the much larger anthologies looking for a poem or a poet. One is inclined to turn to Wiman & Share’s anthology for the poetry … and for the shivers created between the poems, and between the poems and the prose. It is, in sum, an anthology readers are more likely to return to for sheer pleasure.
5. TOMORROW “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” (Sir Isaac Newton). To be continued …
Among the far too many books I own is A Universal Biographical Dictionary, by Charles N. Baldwin, published in 1826; and containing brief lives of the famous throughout history, as well a dictionary of “Eminent Living Characters”. Among the entries on eminent living personages included here is one for Ludwig Van Beethoven, which mentions not only his deafness, but his “inattention to the ordinary rules of politeness.” As for other composers already deceased, Bach merits two sentences (“ … unrivalled as a performer on the organ”), Mozart gets only one sentence (“… a very celebrated German musician and composer …”); and Haydn warrants almost a full column.
As for poets, among the living at the time the book was published and deemed meriting entry, were William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Leigh Hunt, not to mention Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore. As for poets from this same period already deceased, among the few recognizable names are Robert Burns, and Christopher Smart. More noticeable are the names of those who do not appear, including William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. Such are the vagaries of time, of reputation … even immortality.
I mention this because of something Joseph Parisi said in the introduction to his anthology, and it speaks to this whole enterprise … to both anthologies. Toward the end of his long and informative introduction, Parisi wrote:
It is sobering to reflect how many big names of the sixties and seventies have already been eclipsed. Robert Lowell, for example, enjoyed major attention throughout the different phases of his career, from arch–academic formalist to free–form confessionalist. Immediately after his death, the estimate of his work fell precipitously, and has continued to drop. (Meanwhile, in a counter–movement by the wheel of fortune, the small, exquisite body of work by his good friend, The reticent Elizabeth Bishop, has been accorded ever–increasing esteem.) The nearer we approach our own time, the less certain we can be that what we find remarkable will leave a lasting impression.
True enough that, even as Parisi & Young compiled their anthology, Lowell’s star had fallen, while Bishop’s had concomitantly risen, almost as if in an inverse proportion. There’s even been a film made about Bishop’s life in Brazil. Still …
These are, at the least, mutually complementary collections, each well worth having as part of one’s collection … and each as important as the journal has been throughout its history, and as it continues to be. As I said at the outset, the journal looms large. Through much of its existence, it has been a major presence not only on the American poetry scene, but even the international poetry scene. (Something only touched on in glancing, in both anthologies — poetry from English-speaking non-Americans, and poetry in translation.) Parisi & Young's anthology seeks to show us how American poetry came to its present state, and to fix the place of “Poetry” in that evolution; Wiman & Share's seeks to show us what that evolution portends. However, in the end, time haunts both anthologies.
Only three years after Baldwin’s dictionary was published, Felix Mendelssohn conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach’s all but forgotten masterpiece St. Matthew Passion. It spurred a huge revival of interest in Bach, and Bach’s star has been in the ascendant ever since. Over time, Mozart would be seen as the more daring innovator, while Haydn would be seen as the paterfamilias for much that followed. Had it not been for Beethoven or Schubert, how we view what went before might be looked at differently.
So too with poetry. While lovers of poetry still read Blake, or Keats … even Wordsworth or Shelley (and some few of their lines have become those quotes we no longer know the origins of), few but students and specialists read Southey or Hunt. Parisi & Young’s anthology will likely stand the test of time, organized, as it is, around the principle of time. But then, students of poetry still dip into Totell’s Miscellany, to sample Elizabethan poetry as gathered in its own time. As for Wiman & Share’s anthology, as it is predicated on the future and the resonance of that future with the past, only time will tell. Such are the vagaries of time.
Carl Rosenstock was born in Albany, New York, and grew up on a farm near there. He received a BA in Asian History from Union College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. He lives and works on the westernmost end of Long Island, in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies; he helped curate the Village Reading Series, and then curated the Night-&-Day Reading Series; and he was the Poetry Editor of Memoir, nee Memoir (&), as well as being on their editorial board.