Here’s hoping it’s not too late to finally answer the question, “What is it you’re looking for in a poem?”
In your hands is my last issue as editor of this magazine. Before I pass along the inky reins and Internet codes to the next editor, however, it’s with enormous gratitude that I thank you for allowing me into your homes and libraries. No one values the contemporary reader of poetry more than an editor of a magazine of contemporary poems, and that includes me.
Since I was appointed editor almost five years ago and charged with resurrecting Poetry Northwest from the dead, the staff of the magazine—and let me pause here to say what an outstanding staff they are, far superior to their editor, I assure you, from lifers William Bernhard, Edward Derby, Heather Guidero, Roger Leigh, Phil Sylvester, and to veterans Caitlin Dwyer, Franny French, Liz Fuller, Shanna Germain, Jade Pekkala, David Robinson, Claire Sykes, Amanda Turner, Kate Wheatcroft, and Chalcey Wilding, to newcomers John Blackard, Jeff Lytle, and the many others who pitched in, and above all to Garth Weber, who has designed the entire look and feel of the magazine with intelligence and insight, and to managing editor Jill Elliott, who has kept the train on the track and running on time… volunteers all—they have endeavored not only to publish a terrific national magazine that is exclusively devoted to poetry but also to revive one of the nation’s historic literary legacies in the process.
I am grateful to them for making my work as editor so engaging—with all those forehead-scrunching rounds of correcting proofs matched only by all those infamous, monthly, sometimes lampshade-crashing happy hours in which the Portland literati gathered with the editorial staff in watering holes such as the Blue Monk or the Empire Room or Maiden in the Mist to celebrate and gab about poetry and, some nights, God knows what else.
But as I was going to say, as Robert Frost once put it, before truth broke in, that when I was appointed editor nearly five years ago, the staff suggested that I write something in the early issues about what it was I was looking for in a poem. The suggestion was meant as a service to potential contributors. I resisted, figuring that what we were actually publishing would make that statement on its own. Before the next issue went to press, the question would resurface. Again I’d resist, cowering behind the defense familiar to anyone who has edited a magazine, “We don’t have the room for it.” But now, on my way out the door, I’m thinking: Hmm, is it too late?
From the beginning of my editorship, I’ve thought often about Robert Bly’s influential 1963 essay, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” in which he excoriates T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and their adherents for believing that poetry is a repository for objective wisdom or that poetry is, as Dr. Williams famously put it, a repository for “things.” Bly’s attack against Modernism is concise. He accuses it of causing our poetry to exist “essentially without the unconscious.” Eliot’s notion that poetry must involve the “extinction of the personality,” Bly argues, is objectionable.
Quoting Rilke, on the other hand, Bly asserts that poetry has only one true route, inward, where the poet can experience the soul. He emasculates the Modernist aura that passion is to be distrusted and reason elevated. He mocks the Modernist notion of an intellectualized poetics sans senses, imagery, and the unconscious. Modernists, he ridicules, assert that if:
…all senses die, all images die, all association
with the unconscious dies,
all revolutionary feeling dies, then, it
is believed, we are near poetry.
Bullshit, says Bly, and nearly fifty years later, his program of poetic intensity remains unrivaled in America’s poetry. Bly’s idea was that rather than strive for objectivism or abstractionism or fabrication, poetry must instead strive for the spiritual, the reverent, and the sacred. As in the works of Frederico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, or Pablo Neruda, Bly argues, poetry must have wild leaps and great passion.
If the poems submitted in small envelopes to Poetry Northwest are to be judged, the results in American poetry have been mixed or worse. Poke your head into this office’s slush pile, and you will find writing saturated with senses, revved up with images, cavorting with the unconscious, and in the full association of revolutionary feeling. But if our office’s ratio of submitted poem to accepted poem is any measurement—and it may not be because we have passed on poems that have been published and celebrated elsewhere—all that inwardness has resulted in many, many lines and stanzas of leaps and passion but, arguably, not always poetry.
The bulk of what I have considered for publication during the last five years is far from the sacred texts that Robert Bly envisions when he writes that when “domination of the imagination is established over the entire poem…the poem enters the unconscious naturally.” Addressing the cultural arc of the last century, Bly concludes:
Some centuries have a profound spiritual movement; poetry, when vigorous, always is a part of it. We know ours is a century of technical obsession, of business mentality, of human effort dissipated among objects, of expansion, of destructive movement outward. Yet there is also a movement in the opposite direction which is even more powerful… Inward poetry deepens all life around it.
Four years ago, in an effort to recruit a writer to re-evaluate Bly’s 1963 essay—reevaluate it, that is, in the light of what has transpired in American poetry in the subsequent fifty years—I mentioned my prickly observation about the paradoxical success of Bly’s call for inward poetry to…Robert Bly himself. “No, thank you,” he demurred. “Poetics are a young man’s preoccupation.”
Fair enough. And I may be too old to take it up myself—perhaps it’s for that reason, among others, that I’ve dodged the question about my editorial predisposition. I mean, I haven’t known what I was going to publish until I held it in my hands. Usually I’ve been looking for something like a poem we’ve published during the last five years—but it had to be nothing at all like any of those poems, too. See what I mean! My editor’s note would have been totally unhelpful.
One pleasure, then, in re-reading some of the issues to prepare to write this commentary, has been to recognize that many of the poems are dissimilar from each other—in style, stance, feeling, insight, aesthetics, and forms.
Thinking about all of this business, I realize now that the divide between Modernist American poetry and, let’s call it, Rilkean American poetry is largely unnecessary. Poetry can be both a repository of wisdom and contain revolutionary feeling—even in the same poem. William Butler Yeats’ best poems do this, as do Czeslaw Milosz’s. Their imaginations contain actual, virtual, and even sentimental emotion framed in sometimes subtle, other times succinct, forms. On the other hand, a proficient poet parading his or her poetics in every line and stanza causes a fatal danger not so much against poetry but against his or her own imagination.
As I move on from editing these pages to whatever comes next, my plan is to keep a weather eye out—as a reader, yes, and as a maker of poems, too—for poems that embody both a sense of form and a sense of life, that celebrate the power of thought beyond sterile inscrutability or ingratiating woowooism. As the art critic Robert Hughes wrote in the late 1980s, writers
…carry in their mind an invisible tribunal of the dead, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgment of their work. They intuit their standards from it. From its verdict there is no appeal. None of the contemporary tricks—not the fetishization of the personal, not the attempt to shift the aesthetic into the political, not the exhausted fictions of the avantgarde— will make it go away. If the tribunal weren’t there, every first draft would be a final manuscript.
That’s the station stop where I hope to arrive. That’s the poetry I want to see published. I hope to see you somewhere down that road, too, in a pleasant spot of sunlight and among good friends.
David Biespiel has been editor of Poetry Northwest since 2005. His latest book of poems is The Book of Men and Women.