Poetry magazine

3 posts

One Poetry Editor’s Epiphany


Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine and a poet himself, has been there and back. Not just the highs and lows that come with the life of a poet who gets hosannas one second (via acceptances) and brickbats the next (via rejections), but the more soul-searching variety—the one that comes with cancer, bone marrow transplants, and an arduous journey back.

I say this by way of explanation. Wiman’s new collection of essays are about poetry, yes, but they are also about art as faith (and faith as art). Thus, the subtitle in his new book He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art. Thus the reason Wiman walked away from one of the most prestigious editorships for other callings: art, love, faith coming in the form of writing, marriage, and Yale Divinity School (how’s that for a career shift of a higher order?).

The mix of art and faith, so seldom seen together in these troubled times (unless you’re in a museum or Florence, say), makes for a bracing read. And Wiman does not go wild with add-in poems by way of example—either his own or others’—instead choosing to fine tune his own prose voice by choosing support more selectively: the poets and the poems who have spoken to him on a transcendent level.

Who are these poets? They are A. R. Ammons (circular, as he appears at both beginning and end), Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Craig Arnold, Susan Howe, Denise Levertov, Jack Gilbert, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Strand (among others). Of this lot, I’d yet to meet Ammons and Arnold, but all that’s changed now, which is the beauty of reading books—they create a new you under the currency of change.

First, though, Wiman tackles himself, namely his youthful confidence that a poem could be written that would outlast him forever (meaning: enter the annals of eternity).  He no longer believes this. Even Shakespeare will face a time when there are no eyes to feast on his lovely pentameters, Wimar reminds us.

A quote I liked: “Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.”

In addition to the poetry and the philosophy, there’s a rich vein of memoir running through this little book. Wiman recalls, for instance, reading poems sent to Poetry in Herculean 8-hour shifts. He writes, “An editor…especially one responsible for a monthly magazine, and especially one whose literary predispositions are, let us say, snarlish, quickly discovers that if complete critical approval is the only criterion for inclusion, then either he or the magazine is going under. I became a different kind of reader.

“I started out as a poet believing that greatness will out, as it were, that fate will find and save the masterpieces from oblivion no matter what. A decade of standing in that aforementioned storm, as well as making my way through the collected works of just about every American poet of note for the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement, has convinced me otherwise. Chance and power play a large part, and I feel sure that some genuinely great things fall through the cracks—forever.”

Wow. Your suspicions (and mine) affirmed! And even though you may be kidding yourself, you can’t help but believe that some of your stuff is some of that stuff. You know, the sterling silver being rejected as flatware. Through cracks the size of the Grand Canyon. In a cold, cruel poetry world where Chance and Power share the throne with an iron fist like Ferdinand and Isabella.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll share a few of my favorite poems among Wiman’s favorite poems. And continue writing for the cracks. Until then….





Poetry — The Word, Not the Genre


In recent months, the Poetry Foundation’s flagbearer magazine, Poetry, has been featuring the same cover, only with different typographical fonts and colors, using the six letters in the word “poetry.”

While I have not been ga-ga about what is being printed between the pages of this magazine, I do like the simplicity and beauty of laying out covers like this. I stare at them often, like a coffee-table book you never open but leave out for public amusement and occasional dust collection.

It’s a bit of a tic-tac-toe, really. Going with contiguous letters, you find a few familiar friends hiding in the word:

  • POE as in good old Edgar Allan
  • POT as in a saucepan or a hippie’s best friend
  • PET as in the little furry fellow at your feet
  • YEP as in an informal consent
  • YET as in “not…”
  • REP as in a shorthanded representative (it was probably caught in the POT)
  • PERT as in saucy and flip
  • OPT as in “out”
  • TOE as in the ten (we hope) lowest parts of your body politic
  • TOPE as in drinking to excess or (who knew?) a type of shark
  • TRY as in what poets do every day, supposedly
  • TREY as in being related to the number three (e.g. basketball’s 3-pointer)
  • RYE as in pumpernickel bread or a field of Holden’s own
  • POET as in the mirror you’re gazing at or the writers you should be but probably are not reading (coward)

poetry 2

Of course, once you move on to jumping letters, all poetry breaks loose:

  • ROPE as in a useful tool for sailors and hangmen
  • ROT as in a useful British expression
  • PREY as in, if it didn’t exist, PREDATORS would go out of business (or, like that “successful businessman, Donald Trump,” declare bankruptcy early and often)
  • ORE as in iron or Oregon, maybe
  • YORE as in “years of…”
  • PRO as in a professional abbreviator
  • TOY as in what hijacked Christmas
  • ROE as in the eggs of fish or lobster (ew)
  • PORT as in ships seeking a safe harbors, or a specialty wine
  • TROPE as in a used and abused figure of speech from days of YORE

And so on and so forth. You might get a subscription to try the game yourself, but I’m off this judging-a-magazine-by-its-cover kick so will make the Beatles and let it be.

Still, if you find more words and want to have useless (to posterity) fun with POETRY, feel free to comment away.



A Sunday Stream of Consciousness


  • It’s Sunday, but there are no Sabbaths for the monkey mind.
  • “Monkey mind” being the enemy of Buddha-like meditation and the friend of poet-like brainstorming-without-a-banana.
  • I kind of like the “free” subscriptions you get when you enter a poetry publication’s annual contest. It kind of makes up for the expense of missing first place by kind of making you deceive yourself about the meaning of “free.”
  • In poetry, you cut to the bone, taking a scalpel to expressions like “kind of,” for starters.
  • While drafting poetry, I have found that many bad long poems are hiding good short poems. Ones in the second trimester or so.
  • I proved this to myself by rewriting a long poem Dickinson-style. All I needed was a few random dashes and capital letters (found in Aisle Emily, bottom shelf, at Ocean State Job Lot).
  • The cover of the October issue of Poetry reminds me of the BeatlesWhite Album.
  • Speaking of, I wonder how Jorie Graham feels about being the centerfold.
  • There’s a new sheriff in town (starring Kevin Young) at The New Yorker. Too bad they had to close submissions on July 3rd. The good news? The market reopens on Nov. 1st, and just because your poems were sent home before doesn’t mean they will again
  • Which reminds me: Poetry is subjective. A lot rides on particular editors’ eyes. If it gets that far.
  • Which is not to say there’s no such thing as “bad poetry” (I often send it to its room without supper).
  • Still trying to get over my prejudice against form poems by reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax.
  • Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who warned about two sure things in life: death and syntaxes?
  • As usual, the list of National Book Awards for Poetry includes books and authors a.) I haven’t read and b.) I haven’t even heard of. Guess I need to listen better.
  • Does anyone still write poems with pencil and paper? I do. But it’s ideas for poems only. Once I start writing, it’s on the trusty word processor.
  • When a poetry manuscript is accepted for publication, the toughest part is starting the next poetry manuscript. Especially with so many laurels lying around, waiting to be rested upon.
  • Poets need more patience than doctors. Can you say “wait time”? As a submitter of your work, you’d better be good at it. The competition is fierce and the numbers are legion.
  • My first love in poetry is predictably Frost.
  • I do not think “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening” is corny. So sue me.
  • If you call yourself a reader but don’t read poetry, are you really a reader?
  • If a tree falls in the wilderness, does it make a sound?
  • No and yes.