The New York Review of Magazines

A Passion for Poetry

By Spencer Bailey

Vijay Seshadri, a poet and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, met a physical therapist at a party several years ago. She asked him the standard get-to-know-you questions. What’s your name? What do you do? He told her his name is Vijay and he writes poetry.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re Vijay Seshadri.”

Seshadri had published a poem called “Aphasia,” about a language disorder, in the April 12, 2004, issue of The New Yorker — at the time, his tenth to appear in the magazine. By coincidence, the physical therapist worked daily with stroke-ridden patients, many of whom had suffered from aphasia, and was a New Yorker subscriber. The poem had hit home.

As Seshadri tells it: “Here was someone who had never read poetry, but she subscribed to The New Yorker, and she saw this poem, and it was about her job. She cut it out and taped it onto her refrigerator.”

In the small world of poetry, this is a familiar narrative. Says Alice Quinn, executive director of the Poetry Society of America and The New Yorker’s poetry editor from 1987 to 2007: “There’s a long lineage of poems attached to the icebox with a magnet. I’ve gone into countless homes and seen New Yorker poems on iceboxes.”

What underlies Seshadri’s account is the fact that The New Yorker and several other widely read magazines — The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, The Nation and The New York Review of Books continue to publish poetry, as do a slew of smaller literary publications, such as Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review and Boston Review. What’s more, they all plan to keep on doing so, despite dwindling advertising revenues and reduced editorial space across the board.

“I’m all gratitude that any sort of mainstream institution is keeping an investment in poetry,” says Dan Chiasson, poetry co-editor of The Paris Review. “What would happen if The New Yorker canceled publishing poetry? Probably not much, actually, but there’s a commitment.”

In this year’s March 15th issue of The New Yorker, an Edward Koren cartoon shows a scruffy, bearded poet sitting with his laptop, coffee cup in hand. A group of seven suited executives are standing in front of him. The tagline: “We’d like to take a majority position in your poetry.”

Koren’s cartoon is intended to be satire, of course. But if those were executives from Condé Nast, say, which owns The New Yorker, it wouldn’t be far-fetched; the magazine published 116 poems in 2009. At about four poems a page, that makes 29 pages, which means, with a circulation of roughly a million, The New Yorker prints approximately 29 million pages of poetry annually. That constitutes a considerable corporate commitment to verse. The same holds true, on a smaller scale, for other national magazines: The New Republic, which published 48 poems last year; The Nation, which published 29 (along with 45 more by the magazine’s “Deadline Poet,” Calvin Trillin); The Atlantic, which published 21; and Harper’s, which published nine (or 11, if you count two versified letters to the editor).

Printing poems, no doubt, comes at a large cost. But the cheapest aspect is paying the writers for their work. “$100, $200, $300 tops,” says Grace Schulman, a professor at Baruch College who was poetry editor of The Nation for over 30 years. “The money you get from a poem is really an honorarium.”

Why do these magazines continue to publish poems? Because it’s a die-hard tradition, say eight current and former poetry editors. “If they give it up, then the heart and soul of The Atlantic or The New Yorker will just be transferred into a different dimension,” says Don Share, senior editor of Poetry Magazine. “Sort of like a migration of the soul. The soul will still be there, but maybe the body will look a little different. People probably wouldn’t want their money back if poetry disappeared from their pages,” he adds, “but I think they’d miss it.”

The tradition of poetry in national American magazines is long and illustrious. The Atlantic, for example, has published Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, who, in 1915, had three famous poems — “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken” and “The Sound of Trees” — appear in the magazine and, during the next half-century, 28 more. Today, The Atlantic’s current poetry editor, David Barber, is keeping the tradition going. Last year, he published poems by the former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins — popularity-wise, perhaps a modern-day counterpart to Frost — Maxine Kumin and Mary Jo Salter, as well as a number of lesser-known poets. The magazine’s rich poetic legacy is important to Barber, but even more so, he says, is its widespread readership. “The existence, or persistence, of poems in what we might call general interest magazines — and the prominence of certain literary magazines — suggests that there is a niche for poetry, and that poems can still appeal to that semi-mythical beast the common reader.”

Poetry has the ability to resonate with readers in a way that a 4,000-word feature simply cannot. “It’s a nice counterweight to the long essay,” says Peter Gizzi, the current poetry editor of The Nation, “because it’s a demonstration of another engagement with language.” Like most poets and editors, Gizzi says he’s pleased to see poetry on the pages of these publications. But he believes that not enough space is devoted to the form and that there should be more than two or three poems per issue. “The weight of the poem can hold its own,” he says.

The growing number of creative writing and M.F.A. programs at colleges and universities — an academic phenomenon that began in the 1940s — also helps explain the long-standing appearance of poetry in print. The number of such programs grew to 52 by 1975 and, over the next decade, to 150. By 2004, there were more than 350 programs across the country. “We live in a time when there are more writers than ever,” says Gizzi.

Other poets and editors argue that more magazines — like Esquire, say, or Vanity Fair — should publish poems. (Esquire used to print verse, in the mid-20th century, when James Dickey and John Hollander served as poetry editors there, but eventually stopped. “I am trying to get Esquire to open up its pages and give more space and more authority to the poetry that we print,” Dickey wrote in a letter in 1971.) The problem, they say, is not that the six major magazines with verse need to publish more, but rather, there aren’t enough publications that do. “I think Vanity Fair should publish poetry,” says Seshadri. “It’d be great, and I don’t see why they don’t, because certainly poets don’t cost very much. I think Esquire could do that, too: Say we are representatives of a literary civilization and a literary sensibility.”

For Gizzi, the reason poetry is not included in certain general interest magazines is simple. “Poetry is not celebrity culture,” he says. “As John Ashbery once said: ‘To be a famous poet is to not be famous.’”

Even within publications that do print poems, the space allotted to them is limited. Nowadays, it’s rare for a poem to occupy more than a quarter — or, at most, half — of a page. Still, there are exceptions. The New Yorker, for example, published a four-page commemorative spread of 10 poems by John Updike in its March 16, 2009, issue. The magazine also annually publishes “Greetings, Friends!,” a page-long, light-verse Christmas poem by editor Roger Angell, who wrote it for about 20 years, took a decade off, and then started it up again two years ago. Before that, Frank Sullivan wrote it from 1932 until 1974.

Other magazines sometimes make extra room, too. Though The New Republic is known for squeezing its poems into the smallest of spaces — “the thinnest gutter,” jokes Seshadri — the magazine gave two-thirds of a page to Michael Dickman’s “Shaving Your Father’s Face” in its Nov. 4, 2009, issue. And Harper’s, in April 2009, gave three pages to “The Cloud Corporation,” a 35-stanza poem by Timothy Donnelly, the poetry editor of Boston Review and a professor at Columbia University.

Donnelly admits that he never expected to see “The Cloud Corporation” published in a magazine like Harper’s, but after an editor at the magazine asked to see some of his work, Donnelly sent it over anyway — along with about 20 other poems. “I thought that maybe it would help give a sense of the spirit of the other poems I had sent,” he says. Within a week, the Harper’s editors told Donnelly they had chosen the long one. He was thrilled.

No matter how rare publishing such an epic piece may be, doing so serves a valid purpose — for editors and for poets: The work is more likely to get noticed. Consider Donnelly’s 192-line poem “Globus Hystericus,” which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of The Paris Review. After its publication, Donnelly says, he received dozens of e-mails and handwritten notes, most of them flattering. But not all of the responses were positive — proof that not only do people read and care about poetry; they also often react to it emotionally. One anonymous e-mail Donnelly received had the header: “Globus Hystericus; Fecus Maximus.” “In other words,” says Donnelly, “shit.”

In the e-mail’s opening sentence, the sender wrote: “Never before have I read a poem that so incensed and riled me that I felt compelled to write to the author of such driveling trash.”

“I knew I should just dismiss it,” Donnelly says of the e-mail, “but it did sour me a little bit. I was cut deep down. It took me about a week to completely flush that from my system.”

For Donnelly, publishing “Globus Hystericus” was a lesson in both the power of appearing prominently in a magazine and the importance of distributing poetry to a large population. As he puts it: “Having your work read by a great number of people increases the chances of you seeing what a poem will do, of someone finding your work, seeking out the opportunity to let you know it sucks.”

The resounding belief among editors and poets is that as long as there are magazines, poetry will be found on their pages. If poetry doesn’t continue to appear in print, though, they say that it will simply transfer over to the web. Slate, for example, which began publishing poetry in July 1996 — and shortly thereafter, audio podcasts of poems — has remained devoted to the art form since its inception. It’s an editorial formula, according to many editors, that has found much success. As Robert Pinsky, Slate’s poetry editor and a former U.S. Poet Laureate, quipped via e-mail: “Apparently, the magazine business is in trouble: Maybe if Time or Newsweek published a classic poem every week — something by Robert Herrick or Anne Bradstreet or John Keats — they would seem less outmoded?”

For poets, moving to the web is a small change and one that does not present a big challenge to previous publishing models. Pinsky points out that he and his assistant still read stacks of submissions and choose only a select few to publish. “Just like print,” he writes, adding that the only difference with the web is “its vocality, its immediate reader-response cycle, its instant and wide distribution, and its long availability.”

It can be argued that poetry is more vital today than ever before, because people are faced with the media’s never-ending news cycle. “The publication of poetry is essential in our time,” says Schulman. “Particularly in our time with electronics, with the news reaching us so fast, and changing like a kaleidoscope every day. It gives us lasting values and imprints on our consciousness truths that simply do not appear in the day-by-day rush of events.”

As Quinn puts it: “Poetry invites a slowing down and turning inward.”

With more writers and readers — and, well, more poetry — than ever, the culture of verse in American magazines remains viable. While poetry readers will continue to be a small but distinct demographic — a demographic that posts its favorite poems on refrigerators; a demographic that occasionally writes hate mail in response to poems; and a demographic that labors over lines and stanzas for the possibility of a $100 paycheck — this verse-happy bunch is here to stay, and because of them, so is the publication of poetry in print magazines. At least for now.

2 Responses to “A Passion for Poetry”

  1. Bobby says:

    In the course of examining a related issue–changes in the number of women poets published between 1970 and 2005–my co-editor at Chicago Review and I compiled a record of the number of poems published in magazines like The New Yorker, The Nation,, and Paris Review. The table on the second page of the article doesn’t have a column for the total number of poets published in a given year, but you can find that number very easily by adding together the numbers on each side of the male:female ratios.

  2. HTMLGIANT says:

    [...] of submitting my poems to them. But I don’t want them to stop publishing poetry. Why? This article in the NY Review of Magazines talks about that, and more. Who knew the NYer put out 29,000,000 pages of poetry every year? Tags: [...]

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