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.