Wonder Cabinet: Poems [Click the title
to buy this book]
by David Barber
Editing poetry for The Atlantic is one of the most venerable responsibilities in American letters. Taking it on, one inherits a long tradition of distinguished contributions to American poetry—poems by Emerson, Whitman, Frost, and Robert Lowell, among many, many others—as well as famous flubs like editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s rejections of Emily Dickinson (“The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me,” he wrote in 1891, when prompted to comment on her posthumous success). The Atlantic poetry editorship is an especially sensitive post; not only does it require the recognition of good writing in whatever strange and innovative forms it might take, but it also comes with the amorphous assignment of meeting the poetry needs of a general interest magazine.
David Barber, The Atlantic’s current poetry editor, has been at the magazine since 1994. For ten years, he performed the Herculean task of reading and considering every one of the 75,000 poetry submissions that pour into The Atlantic’s offices each year. In this capacity he worked closely with the man who previously held this post, legendary poet and editor Peter Davison, who shaped the magazine’s poetry offerings for more than thirty years. Following Davison’s death in December 2004, Barber took on the position of poetry editor, and on his watch the world of Atlantic poetry has remained true to its longstanding philosophy: rather than defining an ideal Atlantic poem or endorsing a particular House aesthetic, he has aimed to publish poems, in any style, that, as he puts it, strike him with their “inflected intensity… ideas, originality, verve.”
"A Life's Work"
Remembering Peter Davison. By David Barber.
Peter Davison (1928-2004)"
A partial collection of Peter Davison's essays, reviews, travelogues, and poems for The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
Peter Davison (1928-2004). By Cullen Murphy
Barber also applies this omnivorous appreciation for variety to his own poems, which combine deep erudition with a magpie eclecticism. In his new book, Wonder Cabinet, he takes as a model the late-Renaissance curiosity cabinet, an object described by Francis Bacon as a “goodly huge cabinet,” useful for exhibiting any combination of items produced by man, nature, or “singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things.” In this curatorial spirit, Barber displays a kangaroo, the library at Alexandria, a lewdly named flesh-eating flower, a reality TV show starring falcons, the La Brea tar pits, and a hunchbacked tennis whiz. He conscripts Houdini, Louis Armstrong, Babe Ruth, Audubon, and the Flying Wallendas (“the ‘first family’ of high-wire aerialists”), and quarters these luminaries alongside equally alluring minor figures: obsessed Dutch tulip-traders, Kyrgyzstani eagle trainers, and Luther Burbank, “the most celebrated horticulturist” of the late nineteenth century.
Wonder Cabinet provides a surprisingly inclusive picture of human experience and approaches its subjects with humor, fellow-feeling, and a rueful appreciation of the predicament of being a strange creature in a world of strangeness. Along with empathy toward underdogs, the poems profess an infectious admiration for unusual achievements, and an implicit faith in their importance. Upon learning, for instance, that a 98-year-old beekeeper “bobbed to the top of Kilimanjaro” looking for a particular strain of insects, Barber writes “It buoys me simply to think of it”—and it’s impossible not to concur.
David Barber’s first book, The Spirit Level, won the Terence des Pres prize. His poetry and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Poetry, and he has taught at MIT and Emerson College. He lives in the Boston area.
We corresponded by email last month.
In many of the poems in Wonder Cabinet, you’re writing about people with very specific, esoteric interests. In one poem, for example, you directly address Williams Wells, a Victorian scientist who wrote a treatise on dew. You write: “There’s a touch of the sublime in your arcane fixation.” What is it about arcane fixations that you find sublime?
One man’s arcana is another man’s manna, I suspect. Now that you mention it, I suppose that line from “Ode to William Wells” verges on an artistic credo: I have a thing for unearthing stray historical facts and occurrences, and I’m convinced there’s something rewarding and perhaps even redemptive about the effort to recover relics and remnants of the past that might otherwise vanish into the dust-bin of history. There’s a catchphrase going around these days for certain kinds of topical docudramas and the like: “ripped from the headlines.” That may help put my own penchant in perspective: a good many of my poems might be described as ripped from the footnotes.
Then again, isn’t it one of the touchstones of modernism that it’s the particulars that matter at the end of the day? To be fixated on anything implies an abiding devotion to exacting detail, and trusting in the details to deliver the goods. That’s true of modern prose as well—think Flaubert, think Chekhov—but lyric poetry is a particularly fitting medium for that impulse because of its distillation of perception and concentration of expression.
In the case of William Wells, here was a figure of some importance in his day who’s now all but forgotten, like just about all of us will be. He was an American physician who had a practice in London in the early 1800s and dabbled in natural history on the side—or as it was often called then, “natural philosophy.” I happened upon a reference to a scientific paper he presented to the Royal Society in a Loren Eiseley book called Darwin’s Century—in a footnote, naturally!—and was instantly enchanted by its title: “Essay on Dew.” And I was all the more captivated to learn that it wasn’t some kind of metaphorical rubric but quite literally a research paper on condensation and evaporation, one that caused something of a stir in learned circles because it embodied what was just then becoming codified as the scientific method: drawing a hypothesis about the laws of nature based on first-hand observation and scrupulous field studies. So I hope my ode to William Wells is also an homage to certain habit of mind and a certain moment in time, harking back to a historical period when scientific research wasn’t yet the private domain of specialists and an enlightened amateur could still have a hand in revealing how the world works.
In poems about historical figures like Wells, how did you choose the people to write about, and then what was it like doing the research?
I’m tempted to suggest that they choose me, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I lie in wait for them. Something about them speaks to me, and in turn I want to see if I can speak for them. My poems have become more peopled, more inhabited, over the years, and I think that’s because I’ve gravitated toward elegies and apostrophes for the sense of narrative and dramatic occasion they provide. I guess I’ve also developed a yen for channeling tutelary spirits as a way of getting beyond the cramped confines of personal history. In his great little essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost says that poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Courting that kind of harmonic convergence between curiosity and serendipity has always appealed to me.
That’s not to say I have any surefire recipe. The germ for a poem is oftentimes something I’ve read that touches a chord and sends me off in pursuit of more facts, more details, more dirt. It can be a biography, a museum catalogue, a letter, a photo caption, a newspaper obituary, a telling quotation that seems to me to aspire to the condition of an aphorism—by and large, the more ephemeral and antiquarian the better. I’m not trying to impersonate a historian, but I do relish the challenge of appropriating archival material for my own purposes and authenticating my findings: it’s part homework, part detective work, part archeological dig. Inspiration is the natural resource we all covet, but elbow grease is a pretty good fossil fuel in a pinch. At the end of the book I’ve appended several pages of what I call “Notes and Sources,” and it’s mostly a paper trail of all the stuff I’ve assembled poems out of—an inventory of all the burrs that have stuck to me, so to speak.
In the poem “Eulogy for an Anchorite,” for example, my primary source was an obit I happened across at the breakfast table. It was the headline that grabbed me: “Brother Adam, Benedictine monk; Transformed beekeeping, at 98.” Now, that struck me as practically a found poem all by itself, and as it turned out, I wound up weaving the headline right into the measure of the lines and using it as a kind of tuning fork for the poem’s speaking voice. But I also felt the need to bone up a little on the art and science of beekeeping, so that led me to such handy items as a back number of the American Bee Journal, my field guide to hymenoptera, and a pioneering study by Karl von Frisch called The Dancing Bees. Sometimes the walk in the fields turns into a treasure hunt.
Most of the poems in this book are about historical figures or events, but some seem more autobiographical. How is it different writing about public versus private experience? Is it important to do both?
"Emily Dickinson (Un)discovered" (April 11, 2001)
In 1891, shortly after the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's poetry, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled his correspondence with the reclusive poet and reproduced many of her letters and early poems.
It all depends. Some poets can switch back and forth without missing a beat; others seem to pitch their tent on one side of the fence or the other. But it’s not as if there’s some hard and fast boundary, is there? You might say American poetry as we know it comes into its own the moment Whitman announces, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” and seeing as he’s the father of us all, sometimes it seems as if that will always be our default mode. On the other hand, it’s worth recalling the disclaimer that the mother of us all, Emily Dickinson, firmly issued in her famous correspondence with Atlantic editor Thomas Higginson: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” Was she just being cagey? Maybe, but I hear it as a kind of a declaration of independence: there are ways of writing with intimacy and authenticity that don’t hinge on self-disclosure, and there’s a lot to be said for reserving the right to employ the first-person singular as an expressive device rather than an autobiographical posture. For my part, count me among those who are more in their element when exercising the option of being a “supposed person” on the page. Where else can you do that with such alacrity and impunity? I don’t cotton to the notion that poets have an obligation to speak for collective experience, but it’s an honorable tradition worth preserving and I think it can be a welcome corrective to the claustrophobic solipsism that’s an occupational hazard of so much testimonial writing.
Many of these poems are “formal”; some use famously difficult received forms like the ballade and terza rima, and others use forms you seem to have invented. Can you talk a little bit about how form figures into your writing process?
Form has a strong gravitational pull on me, but I want to make sure I’m asking the fact for the form, as Emerson puts it. I’m also partial to Marianne Moore’s sly little proviso: “Ecstasy affords the occasion, and expediency determines the form.” I don’t think of myself as a diehard formalist—it’s not as if I keep an assorted stock of fixed forms close at hand like Julia Child’s famous particle-board kitchen wall where all her gleaming culinary paraphernalia dangled on hooks. It’s more of an architectural principle: form follows function, and sometimes the blueprints call for a received form and other times an improvised nonce form as the larger design takes shape. All forms were nonce forms, once upon a time, and I want to see if I can kindle a spark of that original sense of discovery and immediacy in a way that won’t seem dutiful or mechanical: ideally, the occasion and the expediency will come off as a seamless whole.
So why write a ballade? Why subject yourself to the stress and the strain of terza rima (especially in English, where terminal rhymes come a lot dearer than in Dante’s Italian) or the jujitsu routine of a pantoum? I confess that the athletic discipline of such things appeals to my appetite for difficulty, but I can’t recall ever sitting down and musing, “Today’s a fine day for a pantoum.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that! One reason I found myself writing “Ballade of the Golden Arm” was that I’d been devouring Villon and was captivated by how the strenuous rigor of his ballades seemed to be the secret of their ferocious vigor—there’s this tremendous tension between the constraints of the prosody and the release of verbal energy. A ballade is a lyric form built on set refrains, and I also just like playing around with patterns of repetition and recurrence, seeing what can be done with the incantatory acoustics of variation and modulation. As for the terza rima, the motive there was almost purely mimetic: I was looking for a way to animate my treatment of those ancient Inca artifacts known as quipus, which were intricate woven objects employed for record-keeping and storytelling in place of written language. And when it comes to an intricately interwoven stanzaic form, there’s no beating terza rima.
Form isn’t just about line counts and rhyme schemes, of course. It’s the process of wedding a certain sense of line with a certain turn of mind, so as to sustain a certain distinctive tone or quality of speech. Regardless of whether you’re availing yourself of received forms or making it up as you go along, writing with a sense of form means fine-tuning your facility for prosody, which is just a fancy way of saying that you’re paying close attention to how the poem’s lines are working. Otherwise, you might as well be writing in sentences. I figure that’s what Dickinson is telling us when she says, “I Dwell in Possibility—A fairer House than Prose.”
What about the poems in which each stanza is a haiku? What made you want to adopt and Americanize such a non-English form?
"Bambino Sutra" (May 2006)
A poem by David Barber. [with audio]
You’re talking about my “New World Sutras,” a sequence of poems that constellate around archetypal American personas that grip me for one reason or another. There’s a “Houdini Sutra,” a “Satchmo Sutra,” a “Great Stone Face Sutra” (that’s Buster Keaton), and so forth. It was another attempt to get inside the skin of historical figures, this time with an exclusive focus on those who left some indelible mark on the American imagination. But my starting point was discovering that the word “sutra” in Sanskrit literally means “thread” or “line”—in its original religious sense it referred to a pithy verse or aphorism, or a collection of such utterances. As a longtime enthusiast of aphorisms, epigrams, and the like, I couldn’t resist updating this concept a bit, and I was further emboldened by the fact that sutras took all kinds of eclectic forms as they evolved into one of the principal modes of Buddhist and Hindu scripture. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried creating my own kind of hybrid, an amalgamation of East and West, Old World and New World, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane.
Casting the poems in so-called haiku stanzas was an effort to give that fusion some formal grounding. The true-blue Japanese haiku strikes me as virtually an impossible form to transplant into English (the streamlined syllable count is only one element in its highly stylized idiom), but ever since the Imagists latched onto it a century ago it’s been incorporated into the gene pool of American poetry as a paradigm for verbal compression and figurative precision. It gave me a fixed unit of measure to work with, and I got drawn into the technical challenge of using syllabics as a kind of stealth prosody, a notational pattern that insinuates itself surreptitiously in the flexing of syntax rather than in the pulse of accentual stresses. Part of the impulse here was to give voice to a talismanic brand of American ingenuity and ambition as personified by the likes of Audubon and Babe Ruth and the groundbreaking action photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and to do so in a way that lent itself to a gnomic and epigrammatic style of expression. The supple density of the haiku stanza struck me as a handy means to that end.
What’s a Wonder Cabinet, anyway?
I was hoping you’d ask that. I guess it qualifies as yet another arcane fixation, but somehow or another it turned into an animating trope. I’m trading on both its metaphorical connotations and its historical associations: Wunderkammern, or art and curiosity cabinets, as they came to be loosely called, were all the rage in the glory days of late Renaissance Humanism and are now generally regarded as forerunners of modern museums. A wonder cabinet was literally a gallery or alcove where aristocrats with a bent for learning housed their personal collections of natural marvels and strange artifacts, oftentimes unheard-of relics and novel objects gleaned from the terra incognita of the New World on the early voyages of exploration and discovery. The renowned Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for example, got its start as Elias Ashmole’s private wonder cabinet. That kind of thing is catnip for me.
One of the book’s epigraphs is my favorite thumbnail description of a wonder cabinet, taken from a passage by the polymath English courtier Francis Bacon: “And so you may have in small compass a model of the universe made private … a goodly, huge cabinet wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form, or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature hath wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included.” In other words, you could also call a wonder cabinet an inspired hodgepodge, a glorious mishmash, an extravagant jumble, a pack rat’s little piece of heaven. So I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether in my case it functions as an honest-to-goodness organizing principle—or merely serves as a rough-and-ready device for indulging my appetite for all things eclectic, antiquarian, and serendipitous.
How did you first come to poetry?
Well, first I tried going down to the crossroads with my pawn-shop guitar, but the devil never showed, so I had to opt for Plan B. But seriously, I can’t recall any sort of scintillating conversion experience. It was an affinity that evolved. Being wordstruck from the start probably had something to do with it. Reading Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet at a tender age probably had something to do with it. Liking the sound of certain lines chiming and jangling around in my head probably had everything to do with it. I suspect that’s a pretty common story: getting turned on by poetry before realizing that it’s Poetry, if you know what I mean. Who really knows how the switch gets thrown? It’s probably a safe bet that most formative experiences with art are primal experiences, and what’s primal about poetry is the sound and the rhythm, as distinct from the sense or the significance. I think that holds true when you first start scribbling down lines of your own too: it’s play before it’s work, imitation before it’s self-expression, pure pleasure before it morphs into freighted ambition. The real trick, if you stick with it, is making sure that some vital essence of that original delight remains uncorrupted by professional responsibility and anxiety.
You worked with Peter Davison for many years; can you talk about some memorable moments from that collaboration?
It was my good fortune to be one of the succession of Peter’s understudies during his thirty-year tenure as The Atlantic’s poetry editor—his last “Cerberus,” as he was known to quip. Talk about furthering one’s education! Peter was the consummate lion of letters: an eminent poet, a distinguished book editor, a formidable critic, a great wit, and a force of nature. He had mindboggling quantities of poetry in his head, and an indomitable faith in poetry’s powers. I’ve never known anyone who combined such an exquisite literary sensibility with such savvy horse sense about the hard labor and exacting craft that goes into making good poems. His gusto and generosity of spirit were positively contagious.
Peter and I mostly had an epistolary relationship as editors. My primary job was sifting through the weekly haul of submissions and writing up thumbnail commentaries on the ones that were the strongest prospects for publication. Peter would take it from there, and his editorial correspondence week in and week out was something to behold. I’d love to see the cream of those letters published some day: they’re wonderfully edifying and entertaining, and they’d read like a kind of running symposium on the vicissitudes of contemporary poetics and the vagaries of editing poems for public consumption. His acceptance letters were often suitable for framing, but so were those that dispensed tonic advice to younger poets or offered a piece of his mind on bugbears like wobbly prosody, wayward grammar, or period mannerisms like the rampant use of the first-person indicative. He was a reader on whom almost nothing was lost, and he lavished as much care on the handiwork of unknowns as he did on laureates and old masters. In some ways I feel like I’m still collaborating with him, doing what I can to keep his legacy intact.
What’s your sense of the place of poetry in The Atlantic? What does poetry add to a general interest magazine?
That’s a ticklish question. Historically speaking, poetry has only had a scant toehold in general-interest magazines, even back in their heyday when there were a lot more of them than there are now. And let’s not forget that there are purely expedient reasons for including lines of verse in the editorial mix—to serve as filler for rounding out columns of type. But the custom of running poems in periodicals edited for a general readership reminds us that poetry hasn’t always been thought of as something lofty or rarefied: the poems weren’t just there to lend a veneer of genteel sophistication (though I suppose that might have been the motive in some cases) but as a recognition that they were another kind of reading material that intellectually curious folks took an interest in. As the late Stanley Kunitz once wrote, the true vocation of the poet is to be a generalist, “a person speaking to persons.”
Is that convention living on borrowed time? I don’t think that’s a foregone conclusion, though for all kinds of complicated reasons it appears that poetry doesn’t have as secure a niche as it once had in the collective consciousness. Back in the day people had to memorize wagonloads of poetry in school, and there used to be a fairly robust tradition of composing punchy occasional and epigrammatical verse as a form of editorial punditry, like Calvin Trillin still does in his “Deadline Poet” column in The Nation, bless his forked tongue. It’s not likely we’re going to see a wholesale resurgence of that kind of thing, but you never know. I’m certainly not ready to write off the existence of that semi-mythical creature, the common reader—unlike the unicorn or the manticore, empirical evidence suggests that there’s a population out there that still answers to that description. As for the place of poetry here at the The Atlantic, I have fair hopes that it will continue to occupy the niche it’s always had, marginal but honorable and vital. I’d like to think that readers of all stripes will regard The Atlantic’s poetry not as some ceremonial or ornamental sop to tradition but rather as reliable leavenings of pleasure, stimulation, and surprise. Reading poetry in a general magazine shouldn’t smack of a homework assignment or taking your medicine.
Has the role of poetry changed at all over the course of The Atlantic’s 150-year history?
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.
"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?
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.
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.
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