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100 Years, 100 Poems: Celebrating the Centennial for Poetry Magazine

December 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
"Print the best poetry written today, in whatever style, genre or approach." Those were the ambitious words written 100 years ago by Harriet Monroe when she founded Poetry, now the oldest monthly journal devoted to verse. Jeffrey Brown speaks with the magazine's editor, poet Christian Wiman, about a new anniversary collection.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: the gift of poetry over 100 years in a conversation we recorded recently with poet and editor Christian Wiman.

“Print the best poetry written today in whatever style, genre or approach,” the ambitious words written a hundred years ago by Harriet Monroe, when she founded Poetry, now the oldest monthly journal devoted to verse in the English-speaking language.

Along the way, it has introduced such seminal figures as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and has championed poets from Wallace Stevens to Gwendolyn Brooks to former poet laureate Kay Ryan.

In 2003, Poetry received a large grant from philanthropist Ruth Lilly that led to the creation of the Poetry Foundation, which funds projects to support the art, including the NewsHour’s coverage.

And to mark the anniversary now comes a new book, “The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine.”

With me now is Christian Wiman, the magazine’s editor and himself a highly regarded poet.

And, welcome, Chris.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN, “The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of ‘Poetry’ Magazine”: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is not a greatest hits of Poetry magazine. What were you and co-editor Don Share after?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: We wanted to make a book that did a couple of things.

It represented the magazine’s history, so that it had some of these high water moments like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “The Shield of Achilles” by W. H. Auden.

But it also represented sort of the living history of the magazine, where we’re reading 140,000 submissions a year and choosing from among the best of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: One hundred and forty-thousand a year?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: One hundred and forty-thousand.

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw you wrote that in the introduction, and I went, oh, my, goodness.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Right. And so we’re looking for unexpected pieces by the recognizably great poets, but also and even more so stand-out pieces by young poets. We wanted the anthology to really represent that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the introduction, you have a line — I will quote it — “One of the qualities essential to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life, a capacity for surprise.”

Here you are as the editor getting all of these — and you’re reading poetry. What does surprise mean to you when you’re reading a poem?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: I think it’s usually first a quality of language, something — it’s some sort of signature language that you notice.

But it’s easy to get sort of sidetracked with that. You need that in a poem, but even more than that, you have got to have some sort of emotional engine running the thing. It’s those two things. You’re surprised on the level of technique and yet you’re surprised on the level of your heart. And you respond to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there an example you can think from when you were going, culling through all of these 100 years?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Oh, every poem in the book.

(LAUGHTER) 

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess by definition, right.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Yes. What pops into mind — two poems immediately pop into mind.

There one by Thomas Disch, who died a few years ago. And he wrote a poem — I forget the title — but it’s about — he uses words like terror and civilization and words that we hear in the news all the time now, but he wrote this poem in the ’70s.

And that poem was a real surprise for the way it seemed to anticipate things that we’re talking about now. There was another by a young poet, one that — we wanted to include several young poets, and this is a young poet out in California named Maria Hummel. And she wrote a very beautiful, spare poem about having a sick child, a seriously ill child, and taking care that child.

And it showed the way you could just use very plain language to bring across this very complicated, tragic situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re talking about the writing of poetry, and again I’m referring to your introduction — you do emphasize language, you emphasize craft.

You also emphasize a kind of moral quality, I think, to writing poetry. What did you learn about writing of poetry again from going back and looking at all of this work?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Well, there’s a famous quote from Ezra Pound, who was the foreign correspondent for Poetry magazine for years.

And Ezra Pound said technique is the test of a man’s sincerity. And I think that surprises some people, because they think if you are spending too much time concentrating on the technique of an art, then you’re losing sort of the feeling that’s behind it. A lot of students think that. You’re squelching my voice if you make me learn to write in these other ways. 

But I think any time you spend a long time with poetry what you learn is that anyone who doesn’t make those technical decisions part of their emotional life, where you can’t feel their emotional life in those technical decisions, is not really writing poetry that is going to last.

And I think that’s what we saw throughout a hundred years, is the poems that lasted had some real concentration with the formal elements of the arts, an obsession with it, almost.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also said, I think — I forget the quote here — but something about, if you can paraphrase a poem, it’s not a poem, if you just can tell me what it is in a sentence or a phrase.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: There’s a similarity to dreams in that regard.

We make a lot about interpreting our own dreams. But there’s always something a little reductive about that. You have a dream and it seems to tell you something and then you figure it out. And you think, well, I have figured it out. The same is true of poems.

You have got a great poem. And we ask kids to tell us what it means. And there’s always an element of disappointment, I find, because a poem is — W.H. Auden said a poem is the clear expression of mixed feelings. I think you want — we need some way in our lives to inhabit these parts of our lives that are not clear, that aren’t black or white, one way or the other. And poetry can give us that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this long-running question which you — and sometimes tired question of the role of poetry in our culture, your answer seems to be something like that. Who knows in what ways poetry seeps into all of our lives.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Yes.

I think there are actually a couple of answers to that question. If you look at just — at the metrics, poetry is actually — poetry’s presence in American culture is increasing. You see it on the “NewsHour,” for instance, you hear it on the radio, you come across it on the Internet, which I think is actually a great boon to poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I remember talking to Philip Levine, a recent poet laureate. And he was talking about the number of poetry readings. He said you can’t take a walk without tripping over one, as opposed to when he was a young man.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Right. Right. It’s enormous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: On the other hand, it’s a country of, what, 350 million people or whatever, and it is a small percentage of that population that actually reads poetry.

I think, however, that poetry is influencing the culture in ways that we don’t see, in a way that other arts are as well, in that it tends to enter our lives and the lives of people — even people who don’t pay attention to it in ways that we’re not always aware of. I talk about that some in the introduction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that more than 100,000 submissions suggests that certainly a lot of people are writing poetry.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Yes. Yes. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a lot of poetry.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Well, I think it’s actually — you may not get people to admit that they’re writing poetry, but the number of people who write poetry secretly and don’t show it to anybody is enormous.

I meet people all the time who have — they don’t even want to show it to me. They just want to talk about the act of having written something. And I think it’s embedded in our genes. We don’t know of a culture that doesn’t have poetry. And it just has such roots that they’re not going to be torn out.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we are going to continue this conversation online. And I hope our viewers will join us there.

But, for now, Christian Wiman, thanks for talking to us about “The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of ‘Poetry’ Magazine.”

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s indeed more of our conversation about Christian Wiman’s own poetry and his latest book, “Every Riven Thing.”  That’s on our Poetry page.