Saturday, September 01, 2007

Christian Wiman Interview


It’s not an earth-shattering interview, but it has a few revealing moments worth the seven minutes it will take to read. I still maintain that Poetry is not a good journal (due not to their inclusions, but to their exclusions), but now that their circulation is up to 30,000 units, I think it can be said that they have a very big voice.


P&W: Let me ask you about that article by Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker, followed by David Orr’s sharp response to it in the New York Times. What was that all about?

CW: I can’t get my mind around it any more than you can. I thought it was unfortunate. Look, the New Yorker had a great occasion to focus on poetry and they didn’t—much.

P&W: The piece seemed to be harking back to the Keillor debate—the idea of popularizing poetry versus maintaining standards.

CW: It’s a very simplistic distinction. What I believe, and what we believe at the Poetry Foundation, is that there are a whole lot of Americans who are perfectly capable of reading serious poetry, complicated poetry, and what’s happened is that there’s been a breakdown between the poetry that gets written and the people who read it. Our argument is that there has to be some way of healing this rift. We believe that if we put good poems in front of people, they’ll want to read them. Some people interpret that as dumbing down poetry, that you have to put bad poems in front of people for them to read them. We just don’t feel that way.


He says the split between popularizing poetry and maintaining standards is a simplistic one. I agree. But then he says the Poetry Foundation believes that if they “put good poems in front of people, they’ll want to read them.” Indeed. But who gets to define “good”? And why should someone interpret that as “dumbing down poetry,” unless it’s a reflection on The Poetry Foundation’s notion of “good.”

Maybe, here and there, Christian Wiman could listen to some contemporary version of Ezra Pound, for a different version of “good.” Perhaps Poetry might someday be known for something other than how much money it has, or what it published nearly a century ago.

A “whole lot” of Americans find out what’s going on in American poetry from Poetry and the Poetry Foundation. There’s a wonderful world of poetry they’re not seeing. On the other side of that mountain range, is a great country, where they speak a language The Poetry Foundation doesn’t understand. I think a “whole lot” of Americans would like a tour. Some might even want to move there.


Here’s a poem from Christian Wiman:

Rhymes for a Watertower

A town so flat a grave’s a hill,
A dusk the color of beer.
A row of schooldesks shadows fill,
A row of houses near.

A courthouse spreading to its lawn,
A bank clock’s lingering heat.
A gleam of storefronts not quite gone,
A courthouse in the street.

A different element, almost,
A dry creek brimming black.
A light to lure the darkness close,
A light to keep it back.

A time so still a heart’s a sound,
A moon the color of skin.
A pumpjack bowing to the ground,
Again, again, again.


At 9/01/2007 8:25 PM, Blogger Talia said...

I like reading "Poetry." I love, especially the commentary and letters to the editor. I think the poems they publish are "good." And I think they try to represent somewhat of a variety of styles. So often I will pick up a journal (Indiana Review, Notre Dame Review, The Paris Review, all come to mind) and find a poem, a few poems, where I say "I can't believe that got published." I'm no expert, but I'm not going to spend my $8 or $12 bucks on something if it isn't "good." My definition of good, would include enjoyment from reading it and learning or growing as a poet from reading it.

I guess that is all of what capitalism is about, and to lots of degrees, it makes sense. When you put out a product that people like, people will buy it. Of course with the Poetry Foundation, it helps in that they were given a lot of money to start with.

But I don't understand why people (the few people who read and don't write poetry) are head-over-heels "Ted Heads" about Ted Kooser. That is "dumbing it down."

At 9/02/2007 5:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

You're right. Poetry does, it seems, try to be somewhat catholic in the poetry choices, but why, then, does it bore the pants off me?

Maybe it's the fact that they go so far into the boring side of the gamut before going slightly toward the middle (and never past that), that I just get overwhelmed. I mean, they just published Rae Armantrout, and that's wonderful, but then it's buried in a field of things they really like.

Maybe I'm too crabby about the whole thing. It's just never worth the money to me. I can see it at the bookstore, read the one or two good poems, and put it back. All in under ten minutes.

At 9/08/2007 4:56 PM, Blogger Sara Kearns said...

Hi John,

I happened upon your blog a few weeks ago, and really like it -- especially posts like this. So many blogs, including mine, have seemed to really cease being about poetry or the other arts or anything thoughtful, and instead have become just kind of something like high school yearbooks with a bunch of listings of what clubs people belong to, and comments that remind me of all the scribblings in those yearbooks. You know, as I remember it anyway, I think about a hundred or so people would sign my yearbook, and at the time I was so precious about all the "friends forever" and "remember whens," as teenagers I guess should be, but recently that's what a lot of poets' blogging -- very much including my own -- seems to resemble. You haven't slipped into that, and I find your blog fresh, thoughtful, and fun.

Maybe right now I am just being as cynical as you wonder whether you're being about "Poetry," but I think your "crabby" feelings about the journal are, unfortunately, so justified. It bores me into oblivion half the time, and whatever poetry is "supposed to be," or do, I'm pretty sure it's not that.

Perhaps a big part of the problem is that so many Americans are, I think, so artistically illiterate, and that of all the arts, literacy seems to be the lowest for poetry. I think a lot of my frustration with "Poetry" is that they have a great opportunity to try to reverse that at least a bit, and they seem to be squandering that chance. 'Seems to me that a lot more people might give poetry a chance if they were exposed to a lot of what is found in smaller --and Braver -- journals. So I say shame on "Poetry." Yeah.



At 9/08/2007 5:09 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Ah, and I was just starting to get over feeling cynical!

But, speaking of cynical, looking back at my High School yearbook fills me with the jeebies. Remember how the world was going to roll over for us?


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