Discovering Young Poets

How some of the best-known poets of this century got that way

WE think it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an unknown poet to find a publisher. Robert Frost for many years sought to publish his poems and got lucky only when he was nearly forty -- and in England, at that. Sylvia Plath, decades later, unsuccessfully sent out her poems to book publishers no fewer than seven times before she turned twenty-six. In her journal she ranted bitterly about her rejections, her bitterness intensified, perhaps, by the fact that when she had sent the poems of her English husband, Ted Hughes, to a lucrative New York competition, he had aced it. Plath had to depend on an English firm to publish her first book, The Colossus, which came out when she was twenty-eight. Later on The Colossus was accepted for American publication in revised form. I must shamefacedly confess that, though a friend of Plath's, I was one of the American book editors who declined the unrevised version. (I didn't, couldn't, know what was coming next; and without that knowledge I might repeat my mistake today.)

Nowadays American poets are less likely to have to depend on the English, but they are very likely to require the services of a "first-book contest" run by the staff of a university press and judged by some older poet. Before the First World War poets could hope only for the dubious good will and erratic taste of commercial editors and publishers. Though mainstream publishers continued to be willing and able to underwrite the early poetry of such artists as Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Donald Hall, and Elizabeth Bishop, they tended to draw the line at what they regarded as more problematic poets: Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov. The university press had made a significant debut in poetry publishing as early as 1919, when Yale's set up a program to publish at least once a year a collection by a previously unpublished poet. By 1957, when Sylvia Plath began sending out The Colossus, the Yale Series of Younger Poets (then edited by W. H. Auden) was the destination she coveted. She struck out twice.

Now, seventy-nine years after the series's inception, Yale University Press has published an anthology drawing on every one of its ninety-two volumes. Reading those immense haystacks of immature poetry, if one had the strength to do it, might convey some glimmerings of what the young have thought about poetry over the past eight decades. But who was going to read it all?

George Bradley, himself a Yale Younger Poet in 1986, has taken the trouble -- and I suspect it was a lot of trouble -- to read each of the volumes chosen for the series from 1919 to 1996, no matter how jejune, and he has selected at least one poem from every one. He introduces each selection with a brief identification of its author, and prefaces his anthology with introductory matter amounting to nearly a hundred pages of graceful, witty, and discriminating prose that combines aesthetic perception, historical understanding, and publishing shrewdness. The result is a book that illuminates the recesses between artists, audiences, public taste, and the history of American publication. Interesting? Very. But this reviewer, concerned with such matters, must also declare a different sort of interest: I, too, was a Yale Younger Poet, in 1964, though I have never before looked into the history of the competition, and I'm grateful for Bradley's guidance.

NOWADAYS people talk piously about "the new interest in poetry," but it's not altogether clear what they mean. More people, no doubt, are writing poetry today, with professional intent, than at any previous time in American history. It may also be true, paradoxically, that a smaller proportion of people are actually reading poetry than were a century ago. Nobody knows for sure; many express opinions. When the boys came marching home after the First World War, several members of the Yale faculty thought it might be beneficial to open a competition for the publication of poetry by those surviving the War to Save the World for Democracy -- for who would know better than the Yale faculty what poetry was and was not? As Bradley writes, "To an extent now difficult to grasp, the appreciation of poetry was culturally central and formed a basic intellectual credential." Robert Bridges, the British poet laureate, in the preface to his bilingual (French and English) 1915 wartime anthology, The Spirit of Man ("dedicated by gracious permission to His Majesty King George V" and utilized in the trenches), announced that "spirituality is the basis and foundation of human life [and].... must underlie everything." Yale was happy to read this writing on the wall, and the series led the way toward embodying spirituality in poetry.

At first Yale professors led the way on foot and chose the poets themselves, many of them Yale graduates. One of these was John Chipman Farrar, who later gave his name to the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The early books, as many as four a year, contained the sort of poems that Yale professors liked, fully equipped with classical allusions and heroic postures. A subsequent editor of the series was William Alexander Percy, of Louisiana, the author of Lanterns on the Levee, a chronicle of the great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the guardian of the future novelist Walker Percy. In 1933 Yale University Press decided to turn for judgment to actual poets of some accomplishment, rather than academic hobbyists -- though Yale degrees would help. Stephen Vincent Benét, a Yale graduate who had written a best-selling verse epic, John Brown's Body, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, became the editor, and his choices branched out and away from spirituality. They resulted in the first books of James Agee, Muriel Rukeyser, and Margaret Walker. George Bradley's assessment, which is not contradicted by his selections, holds that Agee's Permit Me Voyage (1934) was more interesting than accomplished, whereas Muriel Rukeyser's Theory of Flight (1935) proved to be as good as anything she wrote later on. The African-American Margaret Walker's For My People has been in print continuously since 1942.

After Benét's untimely death, in 1943, the Yale establishment twisted the arm of Yalie Archibald MacLeish to take over as selector, in spite of his concurrent duties as Librarian of Congress, director of the Office of Facts and Figures, and, later, assistant secretary of state. (Was poetry so spiritual that it required no time in the reading?) The first selection MacLeish made was William Meredith, a naval aviator, whose Love Letter From an Impossible Land took the palm in 1944. Meredith's poetry, unlike that of most poets in the series, has survived and flourished with distinction over the intervening decades; his most recent book, Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, won last year's National Book Award for poetry.

In 1947 MacLeish was succeeded by W. H. Auden, who was in the process of becoming an American citizen; Auden stayed editor for thirteen years, longer than anyone else. If Benét's choices put the Yale series on the map, Auden's choices garnered pages in the atlas. They included, among others, W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, John Hollander, and James Wright. Auden also chose twice to select nobody. Bradley writes, "The Yale Younger Poets chosen by Auden are still the ones on which the Series' reputation rests, and they include some of the most adroit poets America has ever produced."

Auden was succeeded in 1959 by the inspired translator Dudley Fitts, just as the directorship of Yale University Press was taken over by the flamboyant Chester Kerr, who determined to promote the series as a publishing venture -- in which he succeeded to the degree that sales of the series skyrocketed, promptly encouraging imitators. Fitts's choices enjoyed bright days in the sun: George Starbuck's witty Bone Thoughts (1960) went through several printings, and Alan Dugan's stark Poems (1961) won him the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a Prix de Rome. By the time Fitts died, in 1969, during his editorship, half a dozen rival poetry series had sprung up; competitors of the Yale series had to some degree obviated it as it had originally been conceived. Nonetheless, under the next editor, Stanley Kunitz, the Yale Younger Poets Competition dominated the country, attracting more than 900 entries at its peak, in 1975. Kunitz's choices look more heterodox than Fitts's. Robert Hass's first book, Field Guide (1973), showed a West Coast sensibility and a social conscience. Hass later became United States poet laureate, and Field Guide may be the high-water mark of the entire series. Carolyn Forché, in Gathering the Tribes (1976), flourished a powerful political commitment; Olga Broumas, in Beginning With O (1977), evinced a vivid same-sex eroticism. But the poets chosen by Kunitz and his successors tended to put their subsequent work in the hands of university presses, instead of finding homes with commercial publishers, as earlier poets had. In the 1980s and 1990s the commercials grew increasingly shy of publishing poetry at all, no matter how mature.

By the 1980s, moreover, the competing poetry competitions, sponsored by Wesleyan, Princeton, Missouri, Louisiana State University, and others, and often assisted by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, had shaded out Yale's entries. Richard Hugo, James Merrill, and James Dickey were discerning editors in this period, but, as George Bradley points out, editors can only choose; they cannot invent. In all candor, and judging from Bradley's selections, I cannot find in the past decade or so of the series poetry as exciting as could be found in the earlier years. It may be my age, or it may be the age, but Bradley's sampling from the more recent volumes seems to me wan, as though the poems had not yet gained quite enough confidence to sally into the sun. Might this have something to do with the gradual re-academicizing of American poetry? Or with a social tendency to compose verse on a computer? The recent volumes do seem in some ways more sophisticated than their predecessors; but then, one can't help noting that the poets chosen in more recent years have been older than their predecessors. "American poets do not as a rule mature early," Bradley writes, "and any restriction that would have disqualified, say, Whitman (who first published at age thirty-six) could well be dispensed with." Last year W. S. Merwin, the first winner (at age twenty-five) of the Yale competition ever to assume the editorship (at age seventy) of the series, announced that he, like Auden forty years earlier, had found no book of poems worthy of the award. Nobody is entitled to first publication, after all.

Some people welcome poetry anthologies, for they shorten the task of choosing what to read. I dislike them, in general, preferring to make choices for myself. (I've got to confess, moreover, that I don't even much like reading poems in magazines. I prefer the open waters of a Collected Poems, or the eddies of a slim volume, by a single author, where I hope for the excitement of hauling out a slippery, glittering catch.) Anthologies of poetry are usually edited for one of three reasons: to produce a convenient compendium, to summarize a movement or a period, or to prove a point. (Well, no, there is a fourth: to make an editor or a publisher some money.) But some anthologies serve a very good purpose, and this one is among them; anthologies that prove a point are very often more interesting for their point than for their contents. The Yale Younger Poets Anthology will interest readers who care about the nature and direction of American poetry and about the factors of taste, audience, leadership, and opportunity that govern what we are allowed to read. And it lavishly proves its editor's point: that the Yale Series of Younger Poets has performed an admirable service in the past. The anthology does not, however, indubitably prove whether such a series, in which elders (all male) "discover the young" (more than one third female), is really necessary just now. Would the discovery of talent flourish more greenly if the young were for a while left to discover one another?

Peter Davison was a Yale Younger Poet in 1963. He has been the poetry editor of The Atlantic since 1972.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; "Discovering" Young Poets; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 103-112.