Some Thoughts on Poetry
By Ben Leubner
"ALL GOOD DISCOURSE MUST, LIKE FORWARD MOTION, KNOW RESISTANCE."
-James Merrill, Scripts for the Pageant
Poetry is at our mercy. If the most successful of "little" literary magazines were ever in need of humiliation, we would have but to mention the following: T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was held in deliberation for over half a year before being published; Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" was mangled and reorganized for its publication (Stevens put up little resistance at the time); Marianne Moore, despite receiving her first American publication there, was apparently so put off by the magazine that she abandoned it for over fifteen years; and William Carlos Williams had to frequently complain to the editor that it was no longer necessary for every line of a poem to start with a capital letter. These, of course, are all early examples and might be attributed to the founding editor, Harriet Monroe, alone (or to her small staff), as opposed to Poetry in general. But the errors, oversights, and embarrassments are not editor-specific; they accompany the magazine throughout its history. Take, more recently, the volume Between the Lines, the second volume in a history of Poetry in letters, compiled and edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young. The volume covers the years 1962-2002, and yet, looking through the index, one notes, amidst the numerous inclusions, the complete absence of Frank Bidart's name, the similar total omission of Carl Phillips, and the scant mention of Jorie Graham (two entries, both of which lead us to mere mentions in the text, nothing substantial). Were they simply not submitting?
All of this is as it should be. That is to say, Poetry, for its own good, should be thus at our mercy, or rather shouldn't forget this host of imperfections which extend back almost a century now, imperfections which constantly resist, or offer material for resistance of, any claim to prestige (and the complacency which may come with it) that the magazine might make for itself, or that others might make for the magazine. It is, in fact, precisely this constant resistance from both within and without the magazine's borders, a resistance that plays the role of gravity to Poetry's Pegasus, that has enabled the magazine to become so prestigious in the first place.
James Longenbach begins his 2004 book The Resistance to Poetry with the following sentence: "This book is about the ways in which poetry is its own best enemy" (xi). With the help of a capital "P" and some italics, I think we can turn this into a valid assertion concerning Monroe's magazine of verse: Poetry is its own best enemy. What Longenbach's title and opening sentence imply is the fact that the best resistance to poetry comes from poetry itself, both externally, insofar as one poet or poem challenges another, and internally, insofar as poems are composed in "the language of self-questioning -- metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another, voices that speak because they are shattered" (xi). Such resistance doesn't so much inhibit the growth of poetry as provide the very material for that growth. Similarly, both the external resistance to the small industry of Poetry in its early days (offered by, for instance, local Chicago newspapers), as well as the internal resistance that came from the magazine's own employees and contributors (most notably in the form of Ezra Pound's hyper-critical letters from abroad, letters which repeatedly accused the magazine, for which he was foreign correspondent, of publishing trash), fueled even as it constantly threatened the success of Poetry, creating a precarious dynamic the maintenance of which was perhaps Monroe's greatest feat as an editor.
Both the resistance itself and the constant need for it are still there today. When Poetry was given over $100 million dollars in 2002 by the philanthropist Ruth Lilly, many people in the literary community openly wondered if such a gift might ruin the magazine. Howard Junker, editor of the journal ZYZZYVA in San Francisco, speculated at the time that since Poetry was now become a foundation, "sustaining the vision of a venerable little magazine [would] become an afterthought" (Between the Lines 383). There may be resentment embedded in these lines, as the editors of Between the Lines suspect, but there is also, it seems to me, a legitimate concern. To what extent, that is, is Poetry, the "little" magazine, threatened by what T. S. Eliot, as early as 1950, called Poetry, "an INSTITUTION"? Ironically, now that Poetry is completely financially secure for the first time in its long history of operating, for the most part, on a very tight budget, the need for resistance has perhaps become greater than ever. That is, Poetry must resist its own security.
There is little doubt that the magazine will prove capable of this task, its editors and employees having been at it for a good deal of time now, always keeping Poetry more or less true to its origins. And yet, as always, there is cause for trepidation. The last two hundred pages or so of Between the Lines read more like a history of what is nauseatingly referred to as po-biz (the poetry business) than as a history of either poetry or Poetry. I found the only sustained redeeming feature of these pages to be the letters exchanged between Donald Hall and Parisi concerning the sickness and eventual death from leukemia of Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon (pages 312-323). Here, at least, was an existential concern, something much more profoundly human than news of financial reports, arts endowments, poetry projects, and the like. One might legitimately argue, of course, that the history of Poetry has always been a history of financial crisis and the dilemma of how to enable both poetry and Poetry to succeed amidst this crisis (as the letters of Dear Editor, the predecessor to Between the Lines, unquestionably prove), but there is something disturbing, something which indeed threatens to turn the little magazine itself into an afterthought, in the second half of Between the Lines. Po-biz seems to be taking over.
But one cannot argue against the prudence of Ms. Lilly's donation by citing the necessity of poverty in the world of poetry, for it was to counter just such illusions that Monroe began the magazine in the first place. As John Timberman Newcomb has it, "Monroe's modernist idealism admitted no inherent contradiction between the creation of poetry and the creation of a market for poetry" ("Poetry's Opening Door" 18). In other words, financial affluence didn't have to mean artistic destitution; that genius thrived only on poverty was a romantic myth that had effectively barred the poet from earning a living on his art alone. The donation, then, isn't an enemy clothed as a friend, commercial success come to ultimately ruin Poetry; to make such a claim invites the fruition of the very thing the claim itself alerts us to. In shifting the focus of resistance from the concerns of poetry itself to a punctured, if still insidious, stereotype, one leaves poetry (and thereby Poetry), despite one's potentially good intentions, defenseless.
Nevertheless, Poetry's prestige may not be the best thing for contributing poets. Both its excellent reputation and its current affluent state could well prove to be a trap for them. "The literary text," explains George Bornstein, "consists not only of words . . . but also of the semantic features of its material instantiation, [which] include cover design, page layout, [and] spacing" (6). The meaning of a text, that is, or the reputation it will acquire, depends partially (and significantly) on when, where, and how the text is published. Similarly, a poet's own reputation depends not only on the quality of her work but also on where her work is published. Or rather, to put it more accurately, where her work is published determines, in part, the quality of her work. There is, as Newcomb says, an "interdependence of magazine reputation and poetic reputation" ("Others, Poetry" 265). Publishing in a specific journal at a specific time (for instance, Poetry or Others in the 1910s), meant (and still means) positioning oneself as a poet, jockeying, however self-consciously, for reputation. "The egotism of poets," Wallace Stevens wrote to Monroe in 1932, "is disgusting" (Dear Editor 301). And four years later, just after Monroe had passed away in Peru, Stevens reflected, "Her job brought Miss Monroe into contact with the most ferocious egoists. I mean poets in general" (322). As the place to be published, then, for much of the twentieth century, Poetry found, and still finds, itself in the position of either shattering those egos via rejection or confirming them via acceptance. In either case, a certain voraciousness is apt to be inculcated in the poet, a hunger for appearance which could perhaps overtake the initial desire to write poems (if there was such an initial desire). "I want to prove to myself that I can hit Poetry," wrote Philip Booth to Karl Shapiro in 1952, when Shapiro was editor (Oostdijk 354). Booth's ambition to appear in the pages of the magazine, of course, might have spurred him on to write better poetry than he would have otherwise, but one can quite plausibly imagine this scenario working the other way, as well. The solution to this problem, though, clearly doesn't lie in perennially keeping a magazine destitute, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Instead, resistance is called for where it has often, if not always, been present since the inception of the print public sphere: in the poet's struggle with various forms and modes of publicity. In this matter, one might say, the poet's ego is perhaps her own best enemy.
The imperative for all things Poetry, it seems, might be derived from the song of God B in James Merrill's Scripts for the Pageant: "HOLD IT BACK AND WE SURVIVE" (78). The history of Poetry is a history of resistance in all directions; its early avant-garde status was predicated upon its resistance of traditional forms and conceptions of poetry, and its current institutional prestige is steeped in resistance of just that prestige, for instance, in the editors' ongoing willingness to reply considerately and personally to a significant percentage of the 90,000 unsolicited submissions they receive each year (Dear Editor 3), an intimacy not generally associated with institutions. The result of all this resistance has been a good deal of forward motion, so that one can still say of Poetry today what Richard Aldington said to Monroe ninety years ago: "You have done a great deal in the past years. It would be absurd to expect you to print masterpieces each month and no one but a blind partisan would expect you to cling to one school of poetry; but you can claim, I think, to have published work by very nearly every living poet of talent" (quoted in Williams 245-6). Implicit in Aldington's appraisal, of course, is an accusation that Poetry prints a lot of bad, average, or only merely good poetry, from month to month, decade to decade, editor to editor. Parisi, who edited the magazine from the 1980s into the twenty-first century, pointed out that "a distressing number of dull issues in the twenties and thirties are filled with mediocre and parochial verse" (quoted in Oostdijk 346). One will almost certainly be able to say something similar of the magazine under Parisi's own editorship (either now or half a century from now), with as little disrepect for Parisi as Parisi had for Monroe when he made his comment, which is to say, none. Resistance makes the engine go.
Billy Collins wrote to Parisi in 1997, "Thanks for taking 'Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes.' I wasn't sure you would go for that one, but I'm really glad you did. How can you not like that title!" (Between the Lines 345). But how can you like that title? Apparently, one Caroline Finkelstein did like it, for she wrote to Collins early the next year to tell him she was "looking forward to your 'Taking Off Jorie Graham's Clothes'" (346), a poem which has thankfully not yet appeared, and hopefully never will. Parochial indeed. In Between the Lines Parisi writes of his own editorship: "While many decades on we still wanted to keep Poetry's door open wide to the latest New Poetry, I felt that we should also return to Monroe's other original aim and pursue audience-building more creatively" (262). One of the results of this endeavor was the Poets in Person audio series, an innovative and successful project which made poetry accessible to "nonspecialist audiences" (296). One of the other results, however, might have been the publication of just such pandering poems as the one by Collins mentioned above. In this regard it is important to remember that Monroe's own steadfast insistence on audience-building is largely what led to the "dull issues" of the twenties and thirties which Parisi laments. Perhaps one needn't adopt Pound's extreme audience-be-damned stance, but a good deal of resistance in this arena still seems, even if somewhat paradoxically, quite practical.
In 1968, one Nan M. Eaton wrote to then-editor Henry Rago: "Dear Sir: I'm a young poet, not an old fogie, and enjoy new and creative writing. However, in thoroughly reading your publication on its arrival today, it's obvious somebody's putting you on. And you as editor are being sucker enough to print it. Probably if I put this letter in lines one inch long you'd print it" (Between the Lines 101). There is something both specious and weighty in this letter. On one hand, the issue of the magazine Eaton refers to might have featured some of James Schuyler's poems (poems often written in "one-inch lines"), in which case Eaton's caustic letter, in my opinion, turns out to have been merely imperceptive. On the other hand, the issue Eaton read may simply have been a rather weak one, in which case his claim could said to be well-founded, even if poorly phrased. Either way, the editor's task upon receiving such missives is to both welcome and resist them. In 1981 a reader by the name of Stephen Sikora wrote to editor John F. Nims: "Rarely do common readers venture out of their own specialization as consumers, and when they do, a few knife thrusts from a skilled professional quickly send us scurrying back to our proper station of voicelessness" (233). It is perhaps unfortunate that there is a great deal of truth in Sikora's claim. I say "perhaps," of course, because those knife thrusts are also, for better and worse, precisely what often enable the advancement of an art. That is to say, artistic development depends just as much on public support as it does on resistance from and to the general public. It is a strange symbiotic relationship in which mutual beneficence is achieved largely by way of mutual antagonism.
Much of what's written in the two preceding paragraphs (and throughout this essay) hinges on that most enigmatic of concepts: taste. What makes the concept so beguiling, of course, is the variety of ways in which it can be employed, from ordinary assertions concerning something being in good or bad taste to metaphysical expositions of what constitutes the faculty of taste. Add to this variety of uses the infinitely complex dynamic involved in the inception and maintenance of the phenomenon (or phenomena) which "taste" designates, and aesthetics suddenly seems like a province of chaos theory. One might put the question this way, then, fully mindful of the fact that in doing so one is drastically oversimplifying the matter: Does Poetry reflect good taste or is it the arbiter of what shall and shall not be said to constitute good taste? The crudity of the formulation lies largely in the fact that the answer has to be a semi-dismissive, "Well, both." Poetry no doubt determines to some extent what constitutes good taste in poetry, and it then goes on to reflect that taste in its own pages. This is an ongoing process, from issue to issue and maybe even from one submitted poem to the next. Newcomb writes that Monroe's primary goal with Poetry and her 1917 anthology, The New Poetry, was to "form rather than reflect current tastes" (267). While this perhaps remains true of the magazine today, it seems worth pointing out that the formation of taste can't conceivably happen without its reflection, in some fashion, as well. Poetry's governing of taste (by which I mean both the formation of new tastes and the reflection of current tastes) via what Bornstein calls "the Politics of the Page" is thus a complicated, perhaps even chaotic, process, one which is by no means limited simply to the magazine's acceptances and rejections but includes, also, the various letters of advice and encouragement written by the editors to both aspiring and established poets, as well as the letters written by poets and readers to the editors. The friction generated by these various manifestations of resistance ultimately produces the energy which enables both Poetry and poetry to survive.
The painter Fairfield Porter said that it was imperative to see both the figuration in abstraction and the abstraction in figuration. As a primarily figurative painter during the decades dominated by Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Porter seems in his claim to be making a plea for a flexibility in understanding which is capable of at least straddling, if not transcending, categories. It seems to me similarly important to see both the acceptance inherent in resistance and the resistance inherent in acceptance, especially as they pertain to Poetry. While we might accuse the magazine of mangling Stevens, being tentative towards Eliot, alienating Moore, and frustrating Williams, it is nevertheless true that Poetry did in fact give all of these poets some of their earliest publications. And while Bidart, Graham, and Phillips might be mostly missing from the index of Between the Lines, they have by no means been missing from the recent pages of Poetry, as Bidart's "The Third Hour of the Night" took up an entire, very controversial issue in 2004, while a poem from Graham's latest phase (that of Sea Change) was featured in a nice fold-out in the February 2008 issue (the fold-out being necessary to accommodate Graham's lineation).
Poetry, then, is a bit of a paradox. In the end it seems best to quote Marianne Moore, with the help of a few italics:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine. (266)
Bornstein, George. Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Longenbach, James. The Resistance to Poetry. The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Merrill, James. Scripts for the Pageant. New York: Atheneum, 1980.
Moore, Marianne. Complete Poems. New York: Penguin, 1981.
Newcomb, John Timberman. "Others, Poetry, and Wallace Stevens: Little Magazines as Agents of Reputation." 256-70.
---. "Poetry's Opening Door: Harriet Monroe and American Modernism." American Periodicals 15.1 (2005). 6-22.
Oostdijk, Diederik. "'Someplace Called Poetry': Karl Shapiro, Poetry Magazine and Post-War American Poetry. English Studies 4 (2000). 346-57.
Parisi, Joseph, and Stephen Young, eds. Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters: The First Fifty Years, 1912-1962. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.
---. Between the Lines: A History of Poetry in Letters, Part II: 1962-2002. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
Williams, Ellen. Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry, 1912-22. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Ben Leubner will complete his PhD in English at Northeastern University in spring 2009. His dissertation is titled, Forms of Life and Lyric: Contemporary American Poetry and Wittgenstein.