Has Poetry Changed?: The View from the Editor's Desk
Spiegelman, Willard, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Hope springs eternal, especially for aspiring poets. They want their voices to be heard; they want to appear in print as well as to write their poems. One wonders: who will listen, who will read? Interesting questions.
Some years ago Helen Vendler said she was giving up reviewing or generally writing about new books of poetry by younger poets. She had not lost her acumen, her interest or her powers of perception; rather, she said that she lacked the right cultural frame of reference to be an appropriate authence, let alone a judge. She knew about gardens and nightingales, Grecian urns and Christian theology, but not about hip-hop or comic books, and these provide the material, or at least the glue, for many of today's poems. Poetic subjects, voices, diction, and tone change. And forms, like subjects, change as well. She wanted to leave the critical field open to younger people like her colleague Stephen Burt, a polymath who knows the ancients and the moderns, the classics and the contemporary. He listens to indie bands and reads graphic novels. He flourishes amid the hipsters as well as the sonneteers. Dan Chiasson, another young poet-critic, now holds unofficially the New Yorker reviewing post Vendler formerly occupied under William Shawn. The more conservative Adam Kirsch, a Vendler student like the other two men, also writes for The New Yorker, as well as The New Republic, and The New Criterion. More left-leaning or experimental poets might deride all three of these critics as part of an establishment, but they are the people who can tell me what is happening in mainstream poetry these days, who have their fingers on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, and an understanding of how younger poets are responding to, as well as helping to shape, it.
It is important to remain on the qui vive, to attend to the contemporary artistic scene, not in a misguided effort to pretend that one is hip and au courant but because something new - a tone, a word, an image, a reference - just might strike with pleasurable power from a source that one never thought one would understand. We learn from the unexpected, which in many cases is synonymous with youth.
As someone more than a decade younger than Vendler, but several older than Burt, Chiasson, and Kirsch, I find myself on a middle ground. Recently a senior citizen but not yet an old codger, I want "to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days"- as Frank O'Hara put it with his typical cavalier charm in "The Day Lady Died," in part so as not to fall into the mode of Hilton Kramer et al. at The New Criterion who furrow their brows and regret the decline of the West and the inevitable loss of greatness, kindness, civility, and good taste. Things change, willy-nilly, and there is no such thing as progress per se, especially, as T. S. Eliot himself argued a century ago, in the arts. Yesterday s meadow morphs into today's High-Line, Keats's Philomela into Lady Gaga. Poets will register a transformation in the landscape, the cultural surround, and in the field of their vision with a change in their formal arrangements and diction, with their metaphors and rhythms.
I have an additional, more immediate professional reason for trying to keep up with the poetry scene. It is part of my job. I edit a magazine. For a little more than a quarter century, I have looked at all the poems that have come in over the transom of my office at the Southwest Review, now the country's third oldest, continuously published literary quarterly. We are in our ninety-seventh year. Sewanee and Yale have us beat by a hair. My elevation to the bad eminence of literary magazine editor-in-chief dates back to 1984; its story deserves retelling. Out of Dallas during the summer, I was minding my own business when the phone rang and the university provost called to ask whether I might consider taking over the helm of a magazine that had fallen upon - if not exactly evil days - a kind of torpid desuetude. …