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 dip into it; that the book would be a pleasure to read whether you were a poetry expert or someone just finding the way. Chris has articulated a great deal of what we learned, and what can be learned, from reading so many poems in an essay so quotable that I'd end up quoting the whole thing if I tried to quote from it here. You can read it online, however, and it's called - ready for one more number? - "Mastery and Mystery: Twenty-One Ways to Read a Century."
That twenty-one one-ups Wallace Stevens's famous thirteen, you could say...
It only occurred to me well after all our work on the book was through that we might have earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for reading all the poems we did. As it happens, there are guidelines for such things, and they're posted on an official "Is It a Record?" website.
All it says about poetry is that they cannot "consider claims for longest or shortest poem," and all it says about reading is: "We do not accept claims for silent reading."
Before I came to Poetry five or six years ago, I was working at something I loved very much. And I did not expect, though I did dream of it, that I would ever be offered the chance to work at the magazine. I had never met Christian Wiman, or any of the other staff, but during my interviews I realized what incredibly devoted and singularly talented folks they are: I knew that I wanted to work with them more than anything in the world. Yet at some point along the way, I must have looked surprised, or shown some fleeting hesitation about uprooting my life to come to Chicago. Chris gently took me by the crook of the arm and quietly said: "It's good to shake things up once in a while." From that moment on, the man has been an inspiration to me.
In a post to come, I'll talk about what it was like to be present for the death of a literary magazine: I was the last man standing at the old Partisan Review, which was about 70 years old when it was killed off; among other things, its editor had stayed on way too long. True to his vision of shaking things up, by contrast, Chris is, as readers now know, leaving his post as editor of Poetry. So here's one last number: 10.
Chris has been at the magazine for ten years. It's hard to believe that his tenure comprises a tenth of the magazine's history. Change is good, as we all say, and change there will be. Well, not everything is, or should be, about numbers. But I'm certain that when it's all accounted for, these past ten years of poetry - upper and lower-case P, as we often say around the office - will be seen as wonderful ones.
Off I go to read more poems.
Pictured above: Chris reading piles poems for the anthology.
-- Don Share