Poetry Magazine Caves to the Mob

On or about December 1910,” wrote Virginia Woolf in a 1924 essay, “human nature changed.” Woolf was exaggerating for effect, but it’s true that in the first years of the 20th century, imaginative artists of every stripe responded to the rapid social changes and technological developments of the day—and to the profoundly challenging ideas of people like Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche—by taking approaches to art that represented a sea change from the late Victorians.

Artists searched for brand-new means of expression, reached into the distant past to find old forms to resurrect, and explored non-Western cultures in hopes of discovering useful approaches. (There would have been no modernism at all without a massive amount of what is now called “cultural appropriation.”) The futurists made art out of the sounds and images and language of the industrial world; the impressionists rejected strict realism in their paintings, and the abstractionists rejected representation entirely. 

At the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Americans first saw the works of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse. In the same year, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” debuted in Paris. The previous year saw another major cultural event: the establishment, in Chicago, of a small monthly magazine called Poetry. Its founder, Harriet Monroe, had been exhilarated by the fresh breeze blowing across the Western world; when the Armory Show moved from New York to Chicago, she reviewed it, writing excitedly that the works on exhibition “represent a search for new beauty” and “a longing for new versions of truth observed.” 

In the first issue of Poetry, Monroe explained she had founded it to provide a vehicle for the new poetry “in a world unaware of its immediate and desperate need of her [i.e. poetry], a world whose great deeds, whose triumphs over matter, over the wilderness, over racial enmities and distances, requires her ever-living voice to give them glory and glamour.”   

Poetry soon became the flagship of modern verse. In its first three years alone, it published poems by Erza Pound, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Rupert Brooke, Vachel Lindsay, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. In its June 1915 issue, Monroe published T.S. Eliot’s pathbreaking “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; five months later, she ran Wallace Stevens’s now-classic “Sunday Morning.” 

In keeping with the modernist spirit, the magazine’s contents were international, with early issues featuring works by (among many others) the Japanese writer Yone Noguchi and the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore. The importance to modernism of recondite non-Western genres is reflected in the appearance in Poetry of a translation of a Nōh play by the 14th-century Japanese writer Motokiyo.

Monroe didn’t work alone. She received extensive guidance, mostly by transatlantic mail, from Pound, who, as her “foreign correspondent,” introduced her to the work of Eliot, James Joyce, and many other authors whom she helped to make famous. But Monroe was nobody’s tool. She had a good ear and eclectic tastes and an openness to the unfamiliar, but she also welcomed more traditional verse into her magazine’s pages. (“We shall read with special interest poems of modern significance,” she promised, “but the most classic subject will not be declined if it reaches a high standard of quality.”) 

Like every other successful editor of a cutting-edge magazine in a time of social and cultural revolution, she had the discernment, vision, and courage to stick to her guns, resisting the pull of the old while refusing to embrace mere differentness for its own sake. 

Monroe died in 1936, but Poetry survived under her successors, of whom there have been 11 in all. While no longer viewed as avant-garde, it remained important; for aspiring poets eager to build up impressive publishing résumés, perhaps only the New Yorker was a more desirable place from which to get an acceptance letter. When I finally had a poem taken for Poetry, I’d already been a prolific freelance writer for several years, and was accustomed to being published. I shouldn’t have been as thrilled as I was to see my name on that familiar cover, but I was thrilled—because nothing could have made me feel more certain that I’d arrived as a poet, that I’d entered a charmed circle, that I’d established at least a minor connection to the great and storied names of modern American poetry. 

That poem of mine appeared in Poetry many years ago. Since then, American poetry has changed. It’s been a long time since I glanced at an issue of Poetry—even though these days, thanks to a $100 million bequest received in 2002 from the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, you can read every issue for free online. 

If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you the name of the current editor. I know the name of his immediate predecessor—it was Christian Wiman, a very gifted poet. Other past editors of Poetry have also been estimable poets: I’ve read the work of two of them, Daryl Hine and Karl Shapiro, with great pleasure. But the man running the shop now is a fellow named Don Share whom I’d never heard of until, on July 16, I got wind of a controversy at Poetry. 

“Scholls Ferry Rd.,” a poem by one Michael Dickman, had appeared in the July/August number (Poetry prints a double issue every summer) and resulted in a torrent of complaints. On June 26, a letter signed “The Editors” responded to the fury. “[M]embers of our communities,” it noted, “have expressed outrage due to racist language used in this poem.” They continued: 

We acknowledge that this poem contains racist language and that such language is insidious, and in this case is particularly oppressive to Black, Pacific Islander, and Asian people, and we are deeply sorry . . . .

What was it, exactly, that had caused such offense? Although Dickman’s poem has been taken down from the Poetry website,* a copy of it has made the rounds on social media. While taking up 30 pages, it doesn’t contain many words; it’s a patchwork portrait of the speaker’s grandmother in which the reader is presented with fragments of memory and plenty of white space. Anyway, here’s the offending passage:

“Negress” was another word she liked to use

That’s the nice way to say it

“Oh they are always changing what they want to be called”

On the bus she dropped her purse

I was with her

A nice Negress handed it back.

Of course, the point here is not to communicate racist ideas but to give us a glimpse of the grandmother’s casual racism. Poetry’s editors plainly took this view. “We published this poem,” they explain, “because we read it as an indictment of racism within white families.” But, they add, “this was a mistake. We clearly have more work to do in considering how poems center certain voices and affect our readers. We regret not taking serious action sooner to interrogate the editorial process, and we apologize. Our commitment to this work is ongoing, and changes in the magazine’s structure and process are imminent.”

Note the language in this letter: “how poems center certain voices”; “interrogate the editorial process.” This isn’t English; it’s academic jargon, the rhetoric of postmodern critical theory. 

The idea is that Dickman was somehow wrong to “center” the voices of his white speaker (which may or may not be a version of himself) and of the speaker’s white grandmother, at least not in a poem containing the word “Negress.” 

I’m sorry, but to criticize the “centering” of these voices in this poem on such a basis is beyond ridiculous; it breaks with millennia of literary and critical practice; modernism itself—that great cultural upheaval of which Poetry was a proud part—didn’t turn its back on the past in such a flagrant way. 

On the contrary: the modernists were very aware of their continuity with the past, their debt to the past, their responsibility to the past. As T.S. Eliot wrote in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the poet 

must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen . . . .

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

The June 26 letter from Poetry’s editors was followed on July 16 by a longer statement signed by Don Share. “I accept sole responsibility for publishing the poem, and apologize unreservedly for doing so,” he wrote. “The poem was submitted a year ago, and reading it made me realize how rare, if not unheard of, it is for white poets to confront in their work the intimate lineage of racism that exists within their own families.” Yet, again, this doesn’t excuse the fact that Dickman’s poem 

egregiously voices offensive language that is neither specifically identified nor explicitly condemned as racist. It also centers completely on white voices, leaving room for no other presences. Because we read poetry to deepen our understanding of human otherness, I failed in my responsibility to understand that the poem I thought I was reading was not the one that people would actually read. I deeply regret that my misjudgment of the poem has affected Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander people and anyone systematically othered by institutions with a white dominant culture, such as this one.

Shore went on to repeat the nonsense about “how poems center certain voices at the expense of others” and promised that Poetry would work hereafter “to empower marginalized voices.” There was a lot more cringing language, but that was the gist of it. 

And it was all absolutely insane, in a way that we’ve all become accustomed to in the pathetic mea culpas proffered in recent weeks by suddenly “woke” corporate CEOs, university administrators, and public officials who claim to have been utterly unaware of their own poisonous racism until Black Lives Matter came along to point it out for them. 

Such drivel is unsavory enough when it’s coming from business leaders and the like. But when it’s coming from people who hold responsible positions in the literary world it’s especially appalling. 

To condemn a literary work because a character says something racist is absurd on the face of it; the fact that the person is not “specifically identified” as racist is irrelevant; the lack of specificity on that score, in the case of Dickman’s poem, is part of his strategy. As for Dickman’s failure to condemn the grandmother’s racism—is Share kidding? How can a man in his position, who presumably understands a few basic things about how literature works, seriously make such a criticism? Is this what literature has come to in the post-BLM era?

The same question applies to Share’s complaint that Dickman’s poem contains only “white voices, leaving room for no other presences.” How can anyone who cares for literature even suggest that strictures of this sort be placed on writers? This kind of thinking is right out of Stalinist Russia. 

It’s especially disgusting coming from an editor of Poetry, a magazine born of modernism. In one fell swoop, Don Share has renounced the noble legacy of modernism—which responded to the existential challenges of the 20th century by affirming the meaning and value of human life and art—and embraced postmodernism’s pernicious fixation on power, oppression, and identity politics.   

* Even though the Poetry website has been scrubbed clean of Dickman’s offending poem, Wallace Stevens’s poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” which first appeared in Poetry‘s February 1935 issue and was widely criticized even at the time for its title, remains up at the same site at this writing. 

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