EVEN BAD POETRY HAS GOOD LINES
The new editor of The Reader magazine, Philip Davis, talks about the qualities that make a poem worth publishing, and wishes we could have blogs of our lives in which to save those little moments when something magical happens ...
From our arts blog, MOREOVER
IN JOSEPH Heller's novel, "Good As Gold", the youthful protagonist Gold and a hapless friend each decide to send their poems to the New Yorker magazine. If I remember rightly, Gold submits 6 poems and, a month later, learns that he has got 2 published and 4 returned as rejected. Not a bad result.
But poor talentless Levinson, as I’ll call him, is much more ambitious. He decides that he will submit 12 poems. He then has to wait twice as long as Gold. And when finally he does hear back, two months later, Levinson has got none published--and, for his pains, 16 returned. Whose, on earth, were those other 4?
And what did he or she get back?
I have just taken over the editorship of a literary magazine called The Reader. I haven’t done it to spread the misery of rejection around the world. But when people inquire why I have taken this on, in addition to my own writing and my teaching at the University of Liverpool, I say what Malamud’s Seymour Levin says at the end of "A New Life", when asked why he is shouldering the burden of another man’s wife and two kids: "Because I can, you son of a bitch."
I spent a long time in the manuscript room in the Library of Congress, looking at Malamud’s drafts. Originally, what he wrote for Levin was: "Because I have to, you bastard." Then the great reviser got it right, making his man embrace the commitment: Because I can. That is the great shift--because for so long this was a man who felt, in almost everything he tried, "I can’t." Revision made the difference, and it is Levin’s second go at it as much as Malamud’s. Work, labour, struggle--the curse of the Fall--become what can save also.
Today I am reading poetry submissions for the magazine. I cannot possibly tell how hard the poets have worked on their poems, but most of them still feel unrevised. As if some greater hand needed to appear in order to lower this, lift that. Turner, at the last moment on varnishing days at the Royal Academy, would bring his unfinished paintings in a few fast workings of the brush to a sudden realization. It was like the sun coming up.
Most of the poems I am looking at today remain overcast and prosaic or forced into fancy artificial light. They will be returned. It’s sad, especially when the subject-matter or idea is good. A widow struggling to fill out paperwork in the aftermath of her husband’s death. One good line in another poem about the need for a strong "butcher’s heart".
I wish some of these poems could appear in a blog. Not in their entirety even, but as fragments, the best of them somehow picked out by someone wise, like the stammerings of all of us who cannot quite speak it whole and right. It is thus too with theatre reviews: most of the time I will never get to the production and all I read is a cursory summary of the critic’s judgment rushed out to meet a deadline. What I really need to read about are those one or two little moments, even in an average performance, when something magical happened. I want those small transient fragments of life captured, the lines quoted, the action that made them live described.
So here is my proposal: blogs to serve as the back-up of mankind, our rough drafts never completed, the store of what’s saved. That’s what we should use them for: the little bits and pieces that won’t find a place for themselves in the world; tiny specifics more than over-large and self-conscious opinions; messages in bottles. In her tale, "Mr Sandford", that fine neglected Victorian novelist Mrs Oliphant describes a failed painter whose unsold paintings are turned to the wall. When he dies, he says, he hopes they will all be turned round, with their faces showing, and God will see what is best in them, however small.
(Philip Davis, author of "Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life", is a professor of English literature at Liverpool University and editor of The Reader magazine. He will be speaking on Malamud at the 92nd Street Y in New York on October 31st.)