Saturday, July 2, 2011

Up where the air is thin: reading letters to "Poetry" magazines

Given all the time in the world, the astounding amount of reading you could do would still leave gaps in your education. That's why I enjoy reading letters in small magazines like Poetry. By reading -- glancing, really -- through the "Letters to the Editor" section, I get to witness the workings of entire literary universes, most of which I have no critical knowledge. That may indeed be my loss, but how vast is the knowledge of my ignorance!

And fun, too. There are mighty storms, no small tempests, raging in the simple black-and-white type of this small magazine, founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (first publisher of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land") and currently edited by Christian Wiman. There is titanic struggle in the give-and-take of letters on every page: the opposing schools of thought, the defender and the challenger of the writer (and reviewer) in question. Seldom do I see such erudite name-calling in such well-chosen words as in the "Letters to the Editor" section of Poetry magazine.

If one wasn't reading carefully, one could be hurt by the flying bouquets and brickbats being tossed about, and never know it. Up where the air is thin, I get the giddy feeling of learning much more than I should ever know about the clockworks of poetry. Without more ado, and without further comment:

My experience with Zbigniew Herbert is, I suspect, much like the majority of readers who have struggled over the years simply to find the work of this great poet. The narrative detailed by Michael Hoffman in the May issue of Poetry ("A Dead Necktie") is reminiscent of my own. ... For all our similarities in our background as readers, however, I feel confident that Herbert's long-time advocates will find less agreement with Hoffman's vituperative review of Alissa Valles's new translation of the Collected Poems. ...

(Todd Samuelson, Houston TX)

I applaud Michael Hoffman's review of Alissa Valles's Zbigniew Herbert translations. What he says supports my own dismay, but more importantly I think it's a masterpiece of literary reviewing -- highly intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful. ... I also learned a great deal about translation from reading a review by someone so intimately familiar with the process himself. ... If there were a Pulitzer for reviews, I think this should get it.

(Sharon Bryan, Clinton WA)

Michael Hoffman describes the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert:

"There was a novelty, a surprise, an unpredictability, an ongoing untangling as one read ... The poem remade itself -- squeezed itself as out of a tube -- before one's very eyes. It is like reading something still wet, not set, not combed."

In my opinion, Michael Hoffman is also describing the prose of his essay. Incomparable!

(James R. Wilson, San Francisco, CA)

Hoffman reminds us that we can no longer take for granted Seamus Haney's assessment of Herbert in translation -- that "what convinces one of the universal resource of Herbert's writing is just this ability which it possesses to lean, without toppling, well beyond the plumb of its native language."

(Jeff Frank, Plainfield NJ)

... But now I find in the May issue a lengthy review of a translation of the Collected Poems by Zbigniew Herbert, and that review was written by someone who says (nonchalantly? shamefacedly?) "I can't ... read Polish," while at the same time he has the chutzpah to assert that two Polish Nobel laureates are "of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance." ... I hope that in the future you will be able to find reviewers who, if not linguistically competent, are at least modest enough to realize their limitations.

(Elias L. Rivers, Coral Gables, FL)

I know Michael Hoffman about as well as he knows Polish, which is to say, in translation; but I do know Peter Dale Scott ... if Hoffman doesn't know who Peter Dale Scott is, it's not because his work is obscure, nor obscurred. ...

(Joshua Weiner, Washington, DC)

Writing not only as an avowed fan of Morri Creech's Field Knowledge, but also as a graduate student of comparative literature frightened to death by the paths that criticism and poetry have taken over the last few decades, I cannot help but respond to Ange Mlinko's discussion of Creech's new book. ... Mlinko is not only a voice from the stands speaking in unison with all that is current and cliched in the realm of both poetry and criticism, but her response is an absolutely shocking display of what she herself is criticizing. She has responded to an "old fashioned text" by citing the most old-fashioned of artists. Ashbery is her paradigm of contemporary poetry? Who else could be more canonical? ...

(Dafydd Wood, Austin, TX)

Although I liked the idea of two critics from two different schools of poetry arguing over books, your recent staged battle between David Yezzi and Ange Mlinko fell into that same old bloated diatribe. Before even reading it, I had a feeling it would be one Language poet fighting with one "traditional" poet, and, of course, Yezzi didn't like the experimental Girly Man and Mlinko thought the Hecht-like Creech was too boring. If I had a nickel for every time I heard this argument, I wouldn't have to beg for fellowships. It seems to me that what this boils down to is just the right to say "I told you so" in a hundred years. Maybe Charles Bernstein will survive the ages, maybe Morri Creech will -- who knows. At the moment it may be fun to argue about it, but this debate just seemed like a "Letters to the Editor" section, wearing a bowtie.

(Jordan Rome, Yonkers, NY)

All of the excerpts above appeared in the September 2007 issue of Poetry magazine.

1 comment:

theoncominghope said...

I've just come to Herbert recently, and am really enjoying his work! I wrote a little about that here: