Transcript for Poetry: Past, Present and...


Jim Fleming: Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table/ Let us go through certain half deserted streets/ the muttering retreats of restless nights in one night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants, with oyster shells/ Streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question/ Oh do not ask what is it, let us go and make our visit.

T.S. Elliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" was first published by Poetry Magazine in 1915. The magazines early editions also included new poems and essays from Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Mary Anne Moore. Today the magazine still maintains its open door policy, considering submissions regardless of poetic genre. It's also home to poetry criticism. Christian Wiman has been the magazine's editor for nearly ten years. Steve Paulson talked with him.


Steve Paulson: How would you describe the role of Poetry Magazine, both for the poetry community and for the culture at large?


Christian Wiman:  Huh, you know that's changed over the year because when Poetry was founded it had a tiny little audience, probably about five hundred people but kind of outside significance,  because in some of its first issues appeared Ezra Pound, and T.S. Elliot, and D.H. Lawrence, and even people like Earnest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett. And so it sort of ramified around the world from that little cell in Chicago. Over the years we've grown and our circulation now is up to 30,000 and we reach probably a million to the poetry foundation website every month. But in a way our role has never changed, it's still the discovery of new poets, now our role is to get their work as broadly exposed as possible, but it's still same. It's poem by poem, it's poet by poet, and you know the greatest excitement for us is when we come across somebody that's...some voice that's completely new.


Steve Paulson:  Does that happen very often?


Christian Wiman: Well no, that's why it's so exciting. I mean, it's quite rare actually, when some voice really leaps out at you and you recognize something new. I remember sitting in my office when I first took this job and reading poems by someone named Atsuro Riley. He turned out to be of Japanese descent, raised in the Deep South. He has since published a single book of poems, but the voice was so inimitable and so clearly new and just leapt out at me, and I took everything he sent and everything he's sent subsequently. And it's happened, you know, several times over the years, that there have been people like that. Where you realize that something is really sparking fresh, it's really, it's really new. And those are definitely the most exciting times for Don Chair [sp] and I.  He's the senior editor of poetry, and he and I discuss everything as we're going through the process.



Steve Paulson: So it sounds like what you love the most is a singular voice, a poet who doesn't sound like anyone else.


Christian Wiman: I think so. I think, and you can make too much of originality, I think it's possible to accomplish great and durable things in conventional voices. So it's not necessarily a style or a voice that's so exciting that that is sort of an obvious excitement, but it's some sort of an emotional or intellectual freshness that comes to you. And it can come to you in different ways.


Steve Paulson:  Hmm. I think a lot of people see a fundamental tension in, sort of two poles of poetry. On one side they're very accessible poems that pretty much everyone can get, but perhaps not too sophisticated. And on the other side the incredibly complex difficult poems that perhaps only other poets really appreciate. Do you see that as the fundamental tension in the world of poetry?


Christian Wiman:  I guess I have different answers to it. In a way, yes that pole does exist. Some kinds of poetry are quite difficult and I think you would need to be a specialist to read them, there's no doubt. And then there's this whole other kind that's quite accessible, like Billy Collins, but the bandwidth in between those poles is so wide. There's all kinds of things in there. For instance, Robert Frost I would put somewhere directly in the middle.


Steve Paulson:  Mm-hmmm.


Christian Wiman:  He's someone who's, I think accessible to a lot of people, but then there's all kind of complexity within that clarity. So the more you look, the more you find in those poems.


Steve Paulson:  So which way does your own aesthetic tilt?


Christian Wiman:  I do lean towards poems that are accessible to general readers. I want people who are not specialists in poetry to be able to read Poetry Magazine. If we have something in there that I think is particularly difficult, or innovative, we will often try to find some way of giving people an entrance into it. So sometimes we do a Q & A with the author afterwards, or something like that.


Steve Paulson: How many new poems you say you read every week? Poems that come into your magazine?


Christian Wiman:  More than you would want to read.


Steve Paulson:  I've heard that there's something like 90,000 poems that are submitted to poetry magazine every year.


Christian Wiman: More.


Steve Paulson: More?


Christian Wiman:  More. It's gone up, yeah. It's gone up. Now that we're taking online submissions, we get them from all around the world. We think it's up to about 110. We have done an official count, but it's, there's, but yeah it's about 110,000.


Steve Paulson:  Wow. Do you ever get into arguments about whether a poem is good or not?


Christian Wiman:  We definitely disagree, but I wouldn't say their arguments.


Steve Paulson:  Fierce disagreements or gentle disagreements.


Christian Wiman:  They're gentle disagreements, gentle disagreements.


Steve Paulson: Well I guess it raises the question of whether poetry is a gentil world, or whether it can actually get kind of rough and tumble.


Christian Wiman:  Oh my god, Robert Frost once said in answer to that question, you know, if poetry was a means of relaxation. I think he said poetry was a means of taking life by the throat. A life in poetry is a very difficult thing. Very difficult. Not only because the technique is so difficult, so arduous to master and requires so many years, but because there's no reward for so long, and maybe never. And that's why I see part of our role at the magazine as reaching into the lives of poets out there who are experiencing that sort of loneliness that I know about. And bolstering them a bit, as best as we can.


Steve Paulson:  Your magazine has quite a history. I wonder, are you ever haunted by the ghosts of Ezra Pound, and Mary Anne Moore, and William Carlos Williams, or the magazine's founder Harriet Monroe who published all those great early modernist poets? Or even Ruth Lilly who gave your foundation 200 million dollars ten years ago? Do you feel pressure to live up to the history of Poetry Magazine?


Christian Wiman: I do. I do. When I first took on the magazine I didn't. Maybe it was brash or something, but I didn't feel the history as much as I do now. And it may be that Don and I just put together this centennial anthology which is coming out in October. It's called "The Open Door: a hundred poems and a hundred years of Poetry Magazine." And so we read through the entire archives, some 30,000, 40,000 poems. That was daunting and sobering and chastening task. Because you do see these masterpieces jut out of the magazine, but you also see that most of what is there is, gets lost.


Steve Paulson: But if you've been looking back over a hundred years of just what's been published in Poetry Magazine, you must have a very keen sense of the modern history of poetry. And a sense of which are the good periods and which are the not so good periods. Which are we in now? Is this a good time for poetry?


Christian Wiman: I think it is. But it's much more difficult to judge poetry and literature in general than it is now because it's just so much bigger. I got a letter recently from Donald Hall, well know poet, been a poet laureate. He came up, you might publish a book and you might sell 750 copies, but it would be reviewed in the New Yorker, and the New Republic, and the New York Times and all these places. And now you might actually sell a lot more copies but a book will seem to sink like a stone.


Steve Paulson:  So the place of poetry in our culture is much less than it once was?


Christian Wiman: Well I don't know. I don't know that that's true. I think actually in terms of scope it's probably much more. The literary world used to be much more concentrated. It had this intense influence, but it didn't reach in to all kinds of communities that now it does. That are now asserting their voices. The literary world is simply an incoherent place now, and that's a good thing I think, not a bad thing. I think it's good. The tumult of it is a very good thing.


Steve Paulson:  We've been talking about the art of poetry. Your magazine also publishes a lot of criticism. And you yourself are a critic as well as a poet. What's the role of criticism in the poetry community?


Christian Wiman:  Oh it's twofold. When I took over I really wanted to shake up the world of criticism, brought in all these young critics and just gave them free reign. And it caused enormous controversy because some very famous poets took hard beatings in the pages of Poetry, and in the poetry culture at large I think it's necessary to have that kind of friction between the young and the old.  It's always been the way it is. It's shaking out the good from the bad. The other is drawing attention to what might be otherwise get passed over. And that's probably, ultimately, much more important. And I do think that, as always, many of the best poets writing are the least known. I tend to think that things would get lost if you didn't have someone telling you how to read it. Someone paying some kind of early attention to it. It may be that we would have come to T.S. Elliot, eventually. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Proofrock" was T.S. Elliot's first publication and it appeared in Poetry Magazine. And Ezra Pound had to convince Harriet Monroe to publish it. And in fact the readers hated it. So that's an example of criticism I think, being the prow that breaks the ice.


Steve Paulson:  Do you ever get tired of reading poetry?


Christian Wiman: Oh you bet. Oh you bet, I get sick, sick to death of it.


Steve Paulson:  Well you often hear, for instance, movie reviews are, you know, having to watch a dozen movies every week, you know. It's the last thing in the world they want to do. Especially when so much of it is tripe.


Christian Wiman:  Right. Yeah, no, there's no question I get sick of it. I mean, how could you not? Some of the best readers of poetry I've ever known are people who hated poetry. They were so sick of it they couldn't, they had just become all beak and talon. They were coming at it. We talk about this all the time, we talk about how you fight off fatigue and how you do remain open to the new thing when it's there. And if you're in that state of hating poetry you're going to miss it.


Steve Paulson:  So if you're looking for inspiration, are there certain poets you turn to? Do you have particular touchstones?


Christian Wiman:   Well the sixteenth century poet George Herbert is, is just, he's so close to my heart. He had this tension between ambition and a calling from God and he became a priest. And he wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the language. Clear, heart piercing poems. Elliot, whom I've already mentioned a couple of times is another one. There are many though.


Steve Paulson:   I think I may have finally figured out what you look for in poetry, it's the priestly function. It's the poet who is dipping her quill into the sacred waters.


Christian Wiman:  Well it's interesting, I do, I am most compelled by poetry that seeks transcendence. Or at least it believes in transcendence in some way. At the same time I think that can get very fuzzy, and frustrating. Often what we think of as being transcendent is actually the most specific thing that can be rendered, you know, when Pound wrote that great little couplet that appeared in Poetry early on in the first year in 1912, "The apparition of these faces in the crowd, petals on a wet, black bow."  That's it. That's the whole poem. In a station of the metro. And he sort of changed the whole language right then, and that's a poem that seems to me at once utterly transcendent, because it makes you see this scene in a completely different way, and yet utterly specific. It renders that world to a pointillist degree. And to a precision you wouldn't have thought possible. And so when I say I love poems that are, that have some degree of transcendence, I tend to think of it actually as in hearing and that kind of specificity that you get in a poem like that, and in the station at the metro.


Jim Fleming:  Christian Wiman is a poet, essayist, and editor of Poetry Magazine. Steve Paulson talked with him. You can hear Wiman reading his own work by going to our website: I'm Jim Fleming, it's To the Best of Our Knowledge. From Wisconsin public radio and PRI, Public Radio International.

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