Interviews July 2006

Poet in Residence

David Barber, The Atlantic's poetry editor, talks about the writing and teaching of poetry, and about his new collection of poems, Wonder Cabinet

Has the role of poetry changed at all over the course of The Atlantic’s 150-year history?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "America's Bard" (November 7, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic writings by and about Walt Whitman, the free-spirited poet who championed democracy and America.

You’ll have to ask the bewhiskered sepia portraits on the walls! The short answer would have to be yes: poetry might have roughly the same editorial niche here as it always has, but reading habits have changed, the literary climate has changed, the larger culture has changed many times over. A magazine that endures for generations can’t help but reflect that, for better or for worse. But it’s an especially compelling question to ponder under this roof because poets were key players in the founding of The Atlantic: James Russell Lowell was the first editor and Emerson and Longfellow were sort of the godfathers of the braintrust. That’s how it was then: poets of prominence were what we’d today call “public intellectuals,” and Longfellow’s stemwinding narrative poems were runaway bestsellers. There was no mass media, there was no mass culture in the modern sense of the term. Reading was everything, and poetry was on everyone’s shelves. Poets still held bragging rights as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and here in the Hub of the Universe they were all but officially consecrated as such.

Not exactly the world we now inhabit, is it? There’s no going back to the days when poetry was widely seen as having a morally uplifting, even civilizing function—“the best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it—and most of us wouldn’t want to book a ride there in the wayback machine even if we could. Even so, it seems to me that we ought to resist the temptation to feel either superior or nostalgic in relation to our literary ancestors. We’re all captives of our times, like insects trapped in amber. The Atlantic was born on the cusp of modernism (two years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass and the same year Baudelaire published his incendiary Les Fleurs du Mal), and even a visionary like Emerson couldn’t quite have imagined how all the old classical verities about poetry and art were about to be turned inside out and upside down.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Robert Frost—The First Three Poems and One That Got Away"
An Atlantic editor snubs a poet and lives to regret it. By Peter Davison

Soundings: Robert Frost, "The Wood-Pile"
Read aloud by Peter Davison, Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin. Introduction by Peter Davison.

Taking the long view, I think it’s probably fair to say that The Atlantic has run hot and cold on poetry, depending on the disposition of the editor at the helm: there were periods when conventional verse sentiments predominated, and stretches marked by a rather more venturesome spirit. It’s a checkered history, but how could it be otherwise? Higginson couldn’t get his head around Dickinson’s poems when they first crossed his desk, but after her death he wrote a perceptive tribute that helped her work gain its proper recognition. The Atlantic was a little behind the curve in catching onto Frost, but made up for it by publishing some of his best stuff. During the long editorship of Edward Weeks (from FDR to LBJ), pieces by major poets like Eliot and Auden were known to run as cover stories. It waxes and it wanes. But as Peter Davison once reckoned, The Atlantic has published at least a little poetry in just about every issue over those 150 years, and that’s a pretty remarkable track record.

Which Atlantic poems from the recent or distant past are your particular favorites?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Soundings: "For the Union Dead" (April 11, 2001)
Read aloud by Frank Bidart, Peter Davison, and Robert Pinsky. Introduction by Peter Davison.

Poems by Howard Nemerov:

"The Little Aircraft" (May 1979)
"Rope's End" (September 1967)
"Projection" (May 1967)
"The Old Soldiers' Home" (September 1955)
"An Old Picture" (December 1954)
"The Priest's Curse on Dancing" (April 1954)

By my lights Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” remains one of the touchstone American poems—it originally ran in The Atlantic in November 1961. What must it have been like to flip open the page to that magisterial piece of work? The same goes for Frost poems like “Birches” and “The Road Not Taken”: no matter how many anthologies they appear in, they’re still imperishable. Then there’s Theodore Roethke’s “The Dance,” which is the first section of a stellar poem of his called “Four for Sir John Davies” and shows him at the height of his powers. I’m partial to the clutch of lyrics we published by Edward Arlington Robinson from around World War I and several by Howard Nemerov that date from the ’50s and ’60s, owing to their unobtrusive mastery of versification and intonation. Another marvelous poem that comes to mind is Robert Hass’s “Heroic Simile,” from 1976. In terms of recent work, I’d single out several poems by Linda Gregerson that later appeared in her collections The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep and Waterbourne, and a couple of beguiling numbers “for children and others” by Richard Wilbur, “The Disappearing Alphabet” and “Some Words Inside of Words.” It’s a moveable feast.

Do you think, when choosing poems, about whether they will “last”? Are you surprised by any from The Atlantic’s history that have either lasted or not?

I wouldn’t know how to read tea leaves like that. There’s just no telling, and I think it’s a mug’s game to speculate along those lines. What does it mean for a poem to last, anyway? That it gets anthologized? That it gets taught in workshops? There are long odds on any poem holding its own from one generation to the next, and the anthologies of yesteryear are graveyards of poems that were once deemed indispensable. The Atlantic published reams of Longfellow in its first twenty-five years, and most of those poems survive only as museum pieces. Randall Jarrell ruefully defined a poet as someone who, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, manages to get hit by lightning seven or eight times. Writing a poem that “lasts” in some greater historical or cultural sense like “For the Union Dead” is rarer by orders of magnitude—more like getting struck by lightning during a lunar eclipse or in conjunction with Halley’s comet. You’ve just got to hope that Pound was right when he said poetry is news that stays news, and leave the rest to the fates.

When people find out I write poems, they almost invariably tell me that they don’t understand poetry. Do you often run into this sense that poetry is intimidating and only for specialists? Do you try to counteract it through the poems you select for The Atlantic, and if so, how?

That intimidation factor seems to have become a commonplace, hasn’t it? But I wonder if it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make up your mind that poems are too cryptic or inscrutable to bother with, then you’re bound to be left in the dark. I’m not sure why it is that poetry oftentimes gives otherwise openminded and well-informed folks the jitters—maybe it’s because they reflexively associate it with Gradgrind pedantry or can’t get past the suspicion that poems are trying to put something over on them. That’s probably a byproduct of being force-fed poetry in the classroom as just so much grist for laborious interpretation and explication, rather than as this rich heritage of devices and designs for saying things artfully and memorably.

But I also think poets don’t do themselves any favors when they get drawn into thinking that intelligibility is some sort of imaginative copout, as if the only way to be profound is to confound. It’s true that a good many poems deliberately resemble puzzles or riddles (“dark sayings” is one of the dictionary definition of a riddle, after all), but it seems to me that the most accomplished poets in that vein have the knack for getting readers to enter into the spirit of the game. Eliot once wrote that poetry can communicate before it’s understood, but that still assumes that the poet has something to communicate that ultimately justifies a certain degree of mystification. All that said, I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense for an editor to select poems based on some hazy notion of popularity or accessibility. You have to go with your gut, and hope you win a few converts along the way.

With the large number of submissions that come to The Atlantic, you have to discriminate very quickly. How did you train yourself to do that, and what makes a poem stand out to you?

For me it’s all about the ear. I’m with Frost: the sound is the gold in the ore. Robert Hass says it another way: a poem is a proposal about listening. A fully realized poem establishes its own kind of audible energy at the outset, be it musical or conversational, roaring or purring or what have you. So I first try tuning into a poem’s frequency—I almost want to liken it to listening to birdsong. Poems are made out of words, but when words take the form of lines on the page, the language tenses and flexes with a particular kind of inflected intensity. That’s what lines do: they modulate rhythm, they sustain a pitch, they prompt the voice.

One test that’s pretty trustworthy is seeing whether the poem induces me to say it aloud. It’s not just sonority I’m listening for: I also like poems that kick up a fine ruckus, poems written with acerbic wit or sly irony, and ones that that make persuasive use of colloquial speech in quirky or spooky ways. There are inevitably lots of other factors in play—subject matter, formal aptitude, ideas, originality, verve—and I’m not saying that subjective taste has nothing to do with it. I have my blind spots and my soft spots like everyone else. But I think the more you train and trust your ear, the more readily you’re able to discern whether a poet’s particular brand of sound and sense is earning its keep with conviction and precision.

Most people who read poetry see only published poems, which are a tiny fraction of all the poems being written. Because of all the submissions that cross your desk, you see a much bigger piece of the iceberg. Based on that view, are there any trends you’ve noticed, anything particularly vital and exciting going on right now?

I’m leery of making any grand pronouncements about the state of the art, though I suppose it’s true that the fifteen or twenty thousand poems that pass through our mailroom over the course of a year make for as reliable a core sample as any. I find it awfully hard to generalize, however. Fashions come and go in poetry just like in every other field, and so a good deal of what gets ballyhooed as the next big thing turns out to be fleeting bubbles of small beer. The most striking trend from where I sit might simply be the sheer abundance of the stuff. There’s reams of poetry getting cranked out nowadays of all varieties: the profession may be a cottage industry compared with what the big-league “content providers” are doing, but lately it’s beginning to look more like this sprawling bazaar where you can find a ready supply of whatever suits your fancy. Brute productivity is one kind of vitality, I guess, but you have to wonder if the supply is really being driven by demand. Poets have become a professional caste over the last generation or so, and that’s something of a mixed blessing: I see a lot of work that’s competent but generic, and a steady stream of writing that doesn’t have much aesthetic courage of conviction beyond raw ambition. But perhaps it was ever thus.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Paper Trail" (January 20, 2006)
How best to piece together the unfinished work of a consummate poet's poet? Alice Quinn reflects on the delicate task of vetting Elizabeth Bishop's notebooks.

From the archives:

"North and South" (January/February 2006)
Selections from the notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop.

"Poetry Out Loud" (January/February 2006)
One of the biggest changes in modern poetry is its escape from the page to the performance. By Peter Davison

On the up side, I think poetry that has proven durable is more and more getting its proper due, and not just from acolytes and camp followers. The publication of a volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected and unfinished poems earlier this year caused a real stir, and the Library of America has a spinoff series called the American Poets Project that strikes me as an enlightened alternative to the glut of “best of” anthologies out there. We’ve lost some grand old masters in recent years—Kunitz, Milosz, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, and Thom Gunn, among others—but it’s been heartening to see so much intelligent appreciation of their accomplishments above and beyond the standard eulogistic tributes. Poetry in translation looks to be thriving as well, which generally speaks well for the health and vitality of the body poetic: Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf was a bonafide bestseller not long ago, and we’re seeing some terrific translations of modern Eastern European and Latin American poets coming down the pike. I’m beginning to see signs that a taste for humorous and satirical verse might be making a comeback, and that’s an altogether welcome development for those of us given to lamenting over the lost art of keeping an uncivil tongue in one’s head. There also appears to be a happy resurgence of public interest in memorizing and recording poetry, thanks to the efforts of our recent U.S. poet laureates and the grassroots enthusiasm for so-called “spoken-word” performance. All in all, then, I’m inclined to take a leaf from E. M. Forster’s sensible appraisal of democracy—two cheers for contemporary poetry.

Sarah Cohen is the poetry editor of Faultline.
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