Poetic taste

Here’s an article on developing your taste in poetry. It makes sense to me.


The editor of Poetry magazine tackles the virtues of verse.

By Christian Wiman
Every time we print an issue of Poetry that has more prose than poetry in it, we get at least one letter of complaint, which runs something like this: “Given the nature of your journal, and its very name, what’s with all the prose? 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, but an overdeveloped appetite for poetry is no guarantee of taste or even of love, and institutionalized efforts at actually encouraging the overconsumption of poetry always seem 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 can be instructive in this context. Poetry, for instance, has had 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 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 Cannell, 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. 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.

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. 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. Critical prose exists solely for the sake of the moment in which it is written. 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. 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. 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. 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.

And this, it turns out, is 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.

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. It’s impossible to know whether or not they were justified. My suspicion, though, is that they were. I also suspect that it was not at all a denigration of poetry, but an exaltation of it.

Christian Wiman is the author of two poetry collections, and his latest book of autobiographical prose and criticism, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, is out from Copper Canyon Press this fall. He is the editor of Poetry magazine.

© 2007 by Christian Wiman. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation, at http://www.poetryfoundation.org


~ by ericedits on December 4, 2007.

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