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If the subscription list of this magazine approximated the yearly inflow of manuscripts – the editors would hire a long string of assistants, have cut flowers replenished daily on their desks, and be less harassed generally. Even then, however, the impossibility of answering personally each letter that reaches the office would be equally manifest. What is one to do about such a condition? Those sentences were not written by any living editor of a literary magazine, nor ever blogged (except by me), but were written by Alice Corbin Henderson and published in Poetry – way back in July 1916. You can read the whole piece here. I’ve been noticing the theme of rejection that runs through some of the comments on my posts here this week, and thought I'd address them briefly before I melt away. (I call this "Secrets of the Editing Trade, Part 1," but will probably only have time for a part 2. There aren't really any secrets, despite what people seem to imagine.) I guess the first thing to mention is that both Chris Wiman and I are writers who get rejections all the time just like everyone else. This is true of most of the folks who read submissions at magazines and websites that publish poetry. In fact, the only time I'd ever been in contact with Chris before I came to work at Poetry was via a rejection letter from him sent not long before I came! And I speak to you as one of those recent Paris Review de-acceptancees. No need to feel sorry for me, but I'm just sayin'... Is this a tired subject? Probably not. Lots has been written about it already, though there's little need to state the obvious. But it remains an important subject for most of us – it's not going to go away; heck, there’s even a whole Rejection Wiki these days. Well, of all that's been written on the subject, I recommend Ada Limón’s “Response Burger: A Story of Rejection.” It’s heartening to see Ada’s strong and salutary response to her having received those mortifying rejection slips we all get: “I really believe that all those rejections made me better.” Understandably, not everyone feels that way. For those who haven’t “made friends” with their rejections as Ada has done, it’s worth noting that Henderson’s piece is not a complaint. Like all of Poetry‘s editors from Harriet Monroe on, Alice was grateful to those who take the time and trouble to send their work, without which the magazine would simply not exist. Instead – and as are the present editors and Harriet herself – Alice was a poet too, and well understood the experience of rejection as “brutal and dispiriting.” But, she asked, what sort of rejection would not be those things? What she offered in solace to those whose work was turned away was the assurance that “All the verse that has come into this office up-to date has been read by the editors.” Despite the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you so much, Jenny and David! I say "sure"a lot, too - is it vanishing, though? (Then again, I often say "okie dokie," which I think Delmore seldom did. And I've been known to say "soitenly," alluding to another great American wordsmith, but that's a whole 'nuther story.) Cheers to you both!
Thanks for your comments, everyone. I've read each of them with great interest and much appreciation. I'm grateful to all of you for reading and thinking about my reflections.
An alien crowd of nurses, residents, attending physicians, and machines and carts careened and hummed everywhere around his wife. If she had needed her husband during her labor, if she had hopes of counting on him, well, as usual, he was completely useless. Oh, he’d taken the birthing classes, worried himself crazy, and had tried to be attentive for months. It was no use. In the end, apart from a few ice chips he fed her on cue, she was on her own again, struggling with absolute physical and spiritual courage, getting things done because nobody else was going to do them. Watching helplessly and unhelpfully as she went through her labor, he kept thinking of those urban legends in which a mother finds, miraculously, the strength to lift an automobile to get her child out of danger. And so, thanks to this kind of courageousness, their only child was born, from strength and sheer resolve. Somehow in all the uncomfortable maze, glare, and welter, a nurse found him cowering in the corner by a cart. Everything was moving fast; he found it hard to keep up with what was going on, with what he was even thinking. Above all, he was crying, crying a lot, something he had really never done before. It surprised him almost as much as the unfathomable process of childbirth. A nurse took him by the crook of the arm. She stuck the odd, unbalanced eyes of a sleek, gleaming surgical pair of scissors into his shaking, damp hand without even looking to see where his fingers were and said, no doubt having said it many, many times before, “Dad? You want to cut the umbilical cord?” And this is what he answered: “Sure.” If the word “sure” has anything to do with certainty, it’s a funny business that a man can say it when he’s least certain. * One of my favorite poets is Delmore Schwartz, and one of my favorite poems by him is a sonnet, “The Beautiful American Word, Sure.” The beautiful American word, Sure, As I have come into a room, and touch The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such Certainty where the darkness loomed before, As I care for what I do not know, and care Knowing for little she might not have been, And for how little she would be unseen, The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear. Where the light is, and each thing clear, Separate from all others, standing in its place, I drink the time and touch whatever’s near, And hope for day when the whole world has that grace: For what assures her present every year? In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace. There can be no doubt but that at the instant of the cutting, the brand-new dad in my vignette had a feeling exactly like what Delmore describes in the first stanza of his poem: something would have switched on in him, after which light bloomed. After all the months of... Continue reading
Posted Jan 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
It wasn't pretty. The decision was made by people who probably didn't read or look at it. It had been around for decades, surviving literary, cultural, cold, and military wars. It was killed by university administrators. The deciders aren't even there anymore. And I never hear its name mentioned nowadays. Yet for almost seventy years, Partisan Review was one of the nation's most important literary magazines, and the fresh-faced fellow pictured above had, somewhat improbably, become its poetry editor, following in the footsteps of such folks as Delmore Schwartz and Rosanna Warren. That fellow was me. When the magazine was killed off, the New York Times headline read: "Journal's Closing Spells End Of an Era," and the article remarked that ... the magazine is unlikely to be forgotten. From its inaugural issue as an independent journal, in 1937, which included Delmore Schwartz's short story ''In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,'' a poem by Wallace Stevens and contributions by Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook and Edmund Wilson, to its heyday in the 1940's and 50's, the journal published an astonishing range of landmark work. For many Americans, Partisan Review was their introduction to Abstract Expressionism, existentialism, New Criticism and the voices of talented young writers like Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag. The list of contributors is so impressive - PR ran everything from "Avant Garde and Kitsch" to "Notes on Culture" to "Skunk Hour" - that I could fill this blogpost with nothing but names, so I'll just add that, lest we forget, Anglo-American literary culture was truly shaped by the mag. To give just one example, between 1941 and 1946 Orwell wrote fifteen "London Letters" for PR, after which, iIn 1949, the journal awarded him £357 for the year's most significant contribution to literature, Nineteen Eighty-Four. At its peak, PR had about 15,000 subscribers. When I met Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, he told me he was a reader. So was my podiatrist. Nobody talked much about "audience" in those days, probably because litmags did have an audience back then. And though chronologically, PR was shut down less than ten years ago, it's ancient history, in literary terms. Back then turns out to be way, way back. I was at PR for eighteen years, starting as a go-fer. Naively, I went to the office one day and asked if I could work there for free. After an initial scolding, an editorial assistant took pity on me, and gave me a few things to do, providing that I made myself invisible to the editors, didn't use the bathroom in the office, and pledged not to steal, or even touch, review copies of books. Everything felt sacred. The offices were extremely quiet, except when the Editor was in town, during which visits a fair amount of yelling could be heard. (Once, the Editor chased somebody out onto the street, calling whoever it was "stoopid - with two o's!") I was reasonably intimidated. But I wanted to learn how literary magazines were... Continue reading
Posted Jan 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I've been amused - bemused, more accurately - by the continuing discussion, among American poets, of an apparent "glut" of poetry. Poetry must be one of the very few things Americans feel there is too much of, but there are days when I sympathize with the argument, however nebulous, that there are too many poets, too many poems. That's only because for the past few years I've been blessed with a job in which I am entrusted to read many thousands of newly-written poems. At Poetry magazine, we now get about 120,000 individual poems to read in a year's time. No matter how you feel about quantity, that's a big number. As things stand these days, we are able to publish about 300 of those submissions each year. Is 300 a lot, too much, not enough? Can anyone really know? No less than W. B. Yeats raised a version of the numbers question: I remember saying one night at the Cheshire Cheese, when more poets than usual had come, "None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many." That was easy for him to say, I suppose! Poets and editors alike have to wonder how much of what they publish will stand the test of time; on both ends, the record can be a bit shaky. For all that, the numbers aren't a problem, as far as I'm concerned, but rather an opportunity. And if I ever tired of reading poems, it would then become clear that I'm in the wrong line of work. Fact is, I can't wait to read more poems, and it's something I do day and night. Here's another number: 100. As many readers here will know, Poetry magazine just turned one hundred years old. Finding ourselves on the magazine's editorial staff upon the occasion of its centennial has meant many things, almost all celebratory. It also meant that we needed to take stock of what came before. Christian Wiman, Poetry's Editor, and I were given the task of reading every poem published in our pages in order to assemble an anthology to put it all in perspective. And so, for a period of several months Chris and I read more poems than anybody would have cause to do under normal conditions. All in all, between us we read about 40,000 poems. As pictured above, we worked quietly and alone in a rented conference room, winding our way through piles of poems until we were down to one hundred poems - not one for each year, and nothing in chronological or any other kind of logical order. Instead, we assembled a kind of grand sequence, punctuated occasionally by pithy prose quotations we also discovered in our sojourn. The result is The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of POETRY, published by the University of Chicago Press. The idea is that you can read it straight through, or... Continue reading
Posted Jan 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I'm going to begin the week by reprising a piece a version of which I once ran on my own blog; it's the best opening salvo I can think of for a few days of rumination. In the days to come, I'll muse on such subjects as secrets of the editing trade, favorite words, what the heck is going on at Poetry magazine (or maybe not!). But I find myself repeating the substance of what follows in many conversations, so I hope you'll forgive me for kicking off with it now. * You see the phrase, “poetry makes nothing happen” trotted out over and over again, attributed to W.H. Auden as some sort of evidence for the reductiveness and hermetic inutility of poetry. There's no Fifth Amendment that prevents an art from testifying against itself, of course... And yet… The fact is that the phrase occurs in a POEM – one, moreover, that eulogizes a poet who made things happen (being a politician and activist, as well as a writer), W.B. Yeats. And in context – only part of that context, since I can’t legally quote the entire poem, and that context is absolutely enormous – the poem actually says: For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth. I’m not practicing literary criticism here, by the way; I’m reading exactly what it says on the page: poetry survives: it is a way of happening, a mouth. Even if, as some argue, by the time of the poem’s publication Auden had lost his belief in poetry as an agent of political change, he would not, as Jon Stallworthy points out, have dared say the words “poetry makes nothing happen” to the living Yeats, no sir. As it happens, the origin of the phrase is Auden’s Partisan Review essay of about the same time (1939), “The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats,” in which he imagines putting Yeats on trial for his belief in fairies and other “mumbo-jumbo.” As the British poet Angela Leighton remarks, “in the imaginary court case to which he brings the poet, the defence lights on a phrase which will yield its own poetic riches.” In Auden’s courtroom “the case for the prosecution [of Yeats] rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.” When this gets reworked into the famous “makes nothing happen” bit, Leighton observes, the phrase “turns, by a tiny inflection, a redistribution of its stresses, into its opposite: ‘poetry makes nothing HAPPEN.’ By this accentual difference, ‘nothing’ shades into a subject, and happens. This is an event, and its... Continue reading
Posted Jan 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry