DON SHARE OF POETRY CLAIMS NOVELIST THREATENED HIM

Don+Ocean+Cropped

Don Share: How important is the middle man?

There it is, that terrifying anecdote, right at the beginning of the recent, much-reprinted Chicago Tribune spread piece on the recently Ruth Lilly-enriched Poetry magazine:

Poetry makes nothing happen.
So said W.H. Auden. Who never lived in Chicago. Or knew Don Share. Share is the senior editor of Poetry magazine, the venerable Chicago-based literary institution. It turns 100 next year, and has seen far more than nothing happen, particularly in the past decade. Share arrived at the magazine four years ago, hired away from Harvard University, where he was poetry editor of Harvard Review. Soon after arriving, he received what he calls a “threatening  phone call.”
It came from a famous novelist whose name he won’t say, but the message to Share was this: You really don’t want to find yourself alone in the same room with me. “He couldn’t believe we rejected his poems,” Share said of the man. “When you work in poetry all day, it’s internal. People get shaken. I was shaken.”

This is a remarkable story—if true: a “famous novelist” feeling the need to threaten Don Share for not publishing his (the “famous novelist’s”) poems in a wee magazine?   Every prestigious magazine publishes “famous” authors—that’s why they’re prestigious magazines.  It’s hard to believe the “famous novelist” felt so terribly left out.  The refusal to publish someone in Poetry magazine simply does not hold enough weight to generate anything but trivial ill-temper; it strains credulity to think Don Share was genuinely “shaken.”  Was Share afraid of getting beaten up by John Updike?  Or whomever it might have been?

But far beyond these vicissitudes lies the chief oddity: Poetry magazine has a well-funded on-line presence, Harriet: The Blog, which allowed the public to talk on-line—until the editors at Poetry stopped that practice dead-in-the-water over a year ago.

Don Share used to joyfully take part in the Harriet public conversations—though once he sulked at a literary comment I made.

But here’s the point: that “famous  novelist” four years ago could have posted his poem right on Harriet, and readers could have made up their own minds on the spot.  Readers could have read the “famous novelist’s” poem and made public their praise, or displeasure.

Poems and debates about poems once could make a public appearance on Harriet, though Harriet moderators (and some of the readers, as well) were always testy about “staying on topic;” for some reason intelligent people adlibbing, digressing, and simply expressing themselves on the spur of the moment, was “threatening” to some—and certainly to the Harriet editors.

Why?  Because editors want that wall between them and their readers.  They want Poetry to be a magazine of their choices.

The process is: poet writes poem, reader reads poem.

Poetry magazine wants to decide which poems the reader gets to read.

But today, who needs this filter?

The editor, obviously, who wants the prestige—the middle man’s feather-in-the-cap.

I can decide whether you get published in Poetry magazine, or not.

Well! Good for you!

This is why, when Harriet: The Blog was a public blog,  there was always an uneasy feeling about it, why the moderator/editors were always full of anxiety: because editors don’t like it when the wall dissolves and  prestige (that intangible thing) crumbles.

Poetry magazine, then, is nothing more than the poems which some particular person (Don Share, or Christian Wiman) happens to have picked out.  This is its prestige.  This is where its prestige begins and ends, with the tastes and prejudices and minds of certain gentlemen who are good poets themselves—or not.  We have nothing against Share or Wiman’s taste, necessarily.  We’re just putting things in perspective.

The credulous fall into vapid worship of empty prestige.  The Tribune article, for instance, goes on to say:

Poetry magazine started in Chicago in 1912, and during the ensuing century, the magazine’s history and the history of American poetry were joined at the hip. It published an unknown T.S. Eliot, gave early support to Langston Hughes, discovered Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Gwendolyn Brooks.

This is nothing but banal untruth: Ezra Pound discovered Eliot, not Poetry. Pound published, as Poetry’s London editor, Eliot’s undergraduate poem, “Prufrock.”  “The Waste Land,” however, was published in The Dial.  Eliot’s prep school friend, Scofield Thayer ran that magazine; Pound worked out a “Waste Land” deal with the lawyer, John Quinn, promising Eliot the 1922 Dial Prize—worth a thousand dollars, equal to Eliot’s yearly salary at Lloyd’s—before Pound had even finished the edits on the poem.  Poetry, a little magazine with a small readership, could not possibly compete with Pound’s well-connected PR machine, which put Eliot on the map.  Langston Hughes, first published by the NAACP, and made famous by anti-U.S. trips to the Soviet Union, and his politics, did not require any “support” from Poetry to further his career, and similarly, Wallace Stevens, who studied with Santayana and William James at Harvard, and was part of Yvor Winters and Hart Crane’s 1920s Pound/Eliot/Tate circle, did not require any “discovering” by Poetry, which happened to publish a few of his poems—on behalf of Stevens’ own connections.  The Egoist, The Dial, Ford’s Transatlantic Review,  The Little Review, The Nation, and finally, Ransom’s Kenyon Review, which appeared in 1939—there were many alternatives to the modest Poetry, in the 20th century.  With the dawn of the Writing Program era in the 1940s, there were thousands of small journals publishing poetry. Poetry was simply one of many.  Careers were not made by Poetry magazine. Not to mention that  poets like Edna Millay and Frost sold books—they hardly needed magazines.

Poetry has longevity, true.

But now that Poetry has money, must we feel obligated to inflate its importance in history?

Isn’t that the last thing the art of poetry needs right now?  Vacuous, historically ignorant, puffing?

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7 Comments

  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    July 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    Will your poetry have absolutely nothing to do with life as lived?

    • Anonymous said,

      July 5, 2011 at 9:55 pm

      Does this comment belong to the previous post, Scarriet Editors Write Poetry For You?

      Thanks!

  2. Statement said,

    July 6, 2011 at 6:04 pm

  3. Al Cordle said,

    September 2, 2011 at 2:17 am

    Remember the time Christopher Woodman copied several of us on an email to Don Share, who accused the former of “distributing” the latter’s e-mail address without permission. Then Share cut off all communication with Woodman, though they’d had a month-long, respectful conversation. As though no one could have guessed the email address construction convention at the Poetry Foundation based on public addresses. Really? Travis Nichols is tnichols@poetryfoundation.org and Catherine Halley is challey at poetryfoundation.org — I wonder what Don Share’s address is?

  4. Bongo Beatr said,

    April 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    A MAY DAY POEM

    Spies inform us on May 1st
    The global rage may finally burst.
    Call in sick! We would, but hey
    It’s different here. MAYDAY. MAYDAY.

  5. noochinator said,

    July 27, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Speaking of Gwendolyn Brooks (she’s mentioned above, albeit in passing):

    Gwendolyn Brooks Park, Topeka

    They carved the letters yellow,
    and painted
    the wood around the letters green,
    chained a picnic table to the grass
    out near where the roof of the dead
    mall directs a crack
    of sunset to radiate the Burger King sign gold.
    Last place open after midnight:
    then apartment windows hold
    stars and satellites in the cold.
    A creek runs like a paper fold
    from one corner of park to other,
    twenty or thirty blocks from where
    she took her first breaths of infancy
    in the only city I know of
    with the letters for poet
    that does not also carry
    a port or a point in its name.

    Ed Skoog


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