There's always someone who says that poetry is dead
Interview with David Lehman
Milan Dezinsky: The BAP series is not a baby. Its life began in 1988. Can you tell a Czech reader how the whole idea developed and what your expectations were?
David Lehman: The idea for the series came to me in 1987 – August 1, 1987. I know the exact date because it was the day after my family and I moved from Ludlowville, a tiny rural hamlet, to Ithaca, New York, ten miles away. I was driving back to the old place to pick up some house plants when the idea occurred to me. There were annual anthologies devoted to essays and stories. Why not poetry?
My agent and I had the dickens of a time trying to find a publisher. The two that made the most sense for the project passed on it. I had just about given up when, in November, I brought it up while having drinks with John Glusman, a young editor at Scribner. In those days I was reviewing books for Newsweek, and John was briefing me on the books he was publishing. To my astonishment he said he liked my idea for The Best American Poetry and was willing to give it a go. We were all, I think, even more astonished when the inaugural volume sold out before its official publication date in October 1988. Poetry wasn’t supposed to sell. Yet our poetry anthology was a hit of the season that went into multiple prints to meet demand.
No one back then would have predicted that we would be going strong twenty volumes later.
Then, in the 1980s, a friend of mine told me that I was the one poet she knew who read the poems in literary magazines. She said most poets read only their own work. I don’t know whether that broad categorization is true, but I remember feeling that poetry was far more vital and varied in America than anyone suspected, and I felt that a book, or a series of books, that reflected this energy would make a lot of sense. So many anthologies are partial, partisan, limited to a specific aesthetic viewpoint. And that’s fine. But I felt that we would be doing a service to the general reader – the reader who would like to like poetry but feels intimidated by it – if we had a distinguished poet, a different one each year, select the “best” of everything, including poems that were supposedly incompatible. And if we published the book imaginatively and made it as reader-friendly as possible – with notes from the poets themselves, a foreword by me, an introduction by the year’s guest editor – we could reach the readership that has always existed, if only in a potential state, for poetry.
MD: The same year you published the first volume in the series, Joseph Epstein wrote his “mordant critique” Who killed poetry? claiming that poetry is dead. And he definitely wasn’t the only one who declared that poetry had declined in cultural importance. Yet your anthology showed that this might not strictly speaking be true. Or how would you explain its success?
DL: Ever since I can remember, people have been announcing the death of poetry. It’s the premature-death syndrome. Obituaries are written before deaths occur, but they shouldn’t be published until after the fatality.
In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1989 Donald Hall invoked doomsayers going back to the 1920s. Joseph Epstein’s piece was only the latest in a long line, but it made a big impression. Donald Hall wrote defiantly, “death to the death of poetry!”
It is possible that poetry’s prestige and public influence fluctuate cyclically. In the 1960s, poetry was very chic, very cool, intimately bound up with the reaction against the Vietnam War. Robert Lowell made the cover of Time magazine. In the late 1980s, this may have seemed a distant memory. But in fact poetry began to enjoy a major resurgence just around this time.
The salient point, I think, is that poetry in the United States has a rare vitality that is recognized increasingly in other countries – and enjoys a substantial readership at home that makes up in its dedication and cultural significance what it may lack in sheer force of numbers. The readership for poetry is like that for jazz or for Rodgers and Hart. While it doesn’t compare to the number of people who watch the Academy Awards on television, it is a real audience, committed and passionate unlike the passive spectator courted by the mass media.
MD: I bet that such a widely bought and popular anthology must also provoke a lot of negative reactions as any anthology would obviously do – it is always hard to find the proper criteria upon which to include the poems. Therefore, there must be a lot of “jilted” poets. Also, a commercial success will always be looked down on, at least here in the Czech Republic. And I am sure that some critics and scholars are afraid that such anthologies create a canon which they would like to see differently. The title The Best American Poetry is controversial in itself. Is editing an anthology like walking on thin ice?
DL: Yes, and for precisely the reasons you state.
MD: You mentioned Donald Hall and his essay “Death to the Death of Poetry,” where he states: “If you write about Poetry Now, you must acknowledge that most poetry is terrible – that most poetry of any moment is terrible. When, at any historical moment, you write an article claiming that poetry is now in a terrible shape, you are always right.” So, David, tell me what contemporary American poetry is like.
DL: Hall is probably right. But that’s like saying that in any age there are always at most five or six great poets whose work will survive a century hence. But I’ve noticed, too, that those who make this argument are seldom the ones most likely to endure. If you feel, as I do, that it is important to enlarge the audience for poetry, then you have to go beyond your own narrow self-interest; you have to go beyond the interest of your faction. Contemporary poetry is marked by factions and factionalism. Each faction thinks well of itself and belittles the others. This is a natural state of affairs.
MD: It appears to me that in The Best American Poetry-series there are a lot of poems which seem to use humour, parody and even certain “witticisms” to tell us about the world of the poets, a good number of poems seem to me even a little light-minded. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way – they want to talk about the world so much and so little about themselves. There is very little writing that seems to come out of pain. Perhaps I am a careless reader but I must ask: is confessional poetry out of fashion now? Did poets like Berryman, Roethke, Lowell, Plath, Sexton or Ginsberg leave so little to our contemporaries?
DL: I believe you’re on to something there, Milan. A significant change in recent American poetry is the greater acceptance of comedy and humour as intrinsically valuable – not only as literary ends but as means to ends that are not necessarily comic. Poets are increasingly using comic elements, wit, jokes and humour to enhance and complicate a poem’s “statement.” The prejudice against funny poems – institutionalized in the very category of “light verse” – is less pronounced than it used to be, maybe because poetry readings are so popular and a mirth-provoking poem is always in favour on such occasions.
It would be a good thing if poets wrote more about the world and less about themselves. Many poems suffer from a feeling of claustrophobia. Unless the mind of the poet is capacious, you tend to feel hemmed in. One way to improve almost any self-absorbed poem is to introduce a second character (“you”).
There is plenty of confessionalism in poetry today, but it does seem as though the reputations of Lowell and Berryman and some of the others you named have declined somewhat in the last twenty years.
MD: That reminds me of the Latin poet Horace who once said, “The task of a poet is to instruct and entertain.” Do you think that most American poets would agree with that? Do they think about “the task of a poet”?
DL: While I can’t speak for all or even most other poets, I know that I constantly ask myself these questions. The purpose of poetry is by no means self-evident. It is a question that must be revisited rather than addressed once and for all. I happen to agree with Horace’s formulation: I feel that to delight and to instruct are the poet’s minimal obligations to the reader. But I also believe that implicit in the act of writing poetry is praise of creation – creation as a process, a way of being, no less than as a product. Coleridge’s formulation in the Biographia Literaria has always held a great charm for me. He writes that what he calls the primary imagination – meaning something greater than fancy – is a “repetition in the finite mind of the infinite act of creation in the eternal I AM”. These statements scarcely exhaust the topic, of course. What do you think, Milan?
MD: I wouldn’t dare to say what the task of a poet is. Somehow I just feel that the task must always be redefined by every individual poet. Poetry, as I understand the term, is my selfish way of sharing my world with others, and my task is then to live my life as a work of art, a poem.
You mentioned that the poets have their obligations to the reader. Are the readers more important now than they used to be? And should a/the reader be present when the poem is being written? And, finally, what makes poetry such a special art form that unlike music or theatre it seems to be consumed primarily by other poets?
DL: I like your definition a lot.
The first obligation of any poet is to please the reader – to earn the reader’s attention and to sustain it. If you don’t do that, you can’t do anything else. Readers are as important today as ever before, and we need to make the effort to reach them. It is an exceptional circumstance when a reader is present at the creation, though it can and does happen.
To the extent that poetry is “consumed primarily by other poets” we have a problem on our hands. The need for poetry is universal and we can and should generously think of those in any and every profession who do not write but who need and deserve to have poetry in their lives.