As editor of Parnassus for nearly thirty years, I have stubbornly maintained that poetry criticism is an art, one requiring airtight argument, a passion for style, and even an entertainer’s wit and timing. A reviewer should, needless to say, be erudite and intellectually nimble, but also unintimidated by reputation and quick to point out such flaws as boring syntax and arbitrary line-breaks. Skepticism is all the more crucial nowadays, when books of poetry enter the world wrapped in a caul of blurbs.
Over the last fifteen years or so, as the prestige of high culture has steadily declined, the audience for belletristic criticism—as opposed to the jargon-riddled academic variety—has dwindled. Yet what I find perhaps even more distressing is the reluctance of poets to write honestly about their peers. Some poets, doves by temperament, are not suited to criticism. But many are simply too fearful. Looking warily over their shoulders, they mutter, “If I write a negative review of poet B’s book, he or a former student of his will pillory my own book when it’s published.”
This widespread timidity, this failure of nerve, quashes the frank exchange of ideas; it closes the valves of everyone’s attention like stone, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. What should be a bracing intramural conversation turns bland, parochial, prevaricating. If reviewers, like a chorus of Pollyannas, hail nearly every poet as being worthy of a laurel wreath, why should we believe them?
Another aspect of this lamentable decline has to do with international poetry. Since the Fifties and Sixties, there’s been a sharp drop in the number of American poets who, falling under the spell of, say, Neruda, Celan, or Akhmatova, embark on a study of Spanish, German, or Russian so that they can read these poets’ work in the original, and perhaps even translate it. (There are, of course, some notable exceptions.) I’m not sure to what this should be attributed. Laziness? Lack of curiosity? I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty of mastering Czech or Chinese. Still, an intimate relationship with another language, particularly its music, can only enrich the poet’s art, as Ezra Pound, the model of a linguistic voyager (and voyeur), demonstrated.
From its first issue, Parnassus has paid close attention to international poetry. The late Donald Sutherland, endowed with an extraordinarily cultivated literary mind, served as our roving ambassador to the courts of St.-John Perse and Valéry, Lorca and Viceinte Alexandre. And we’ve been fortunate, over a quarter-century, to draw on other experts who could interpret, with flair and acute understanding, the poems of Basho, Hölderlin, Tsvetaeva, Cavafy, Apollinaire, and many others.
So when it came time to pick a theme for our twenty-fifth anniversary issue, the choice was easy: We decided on an international number, with a special section devoted to Arab, Hebrew, and Persian poetry—rich, ancient traditions all, and too little known to American readers. We believe readers will marvel, as we do, at the classic verse of the Sephardic poet Shmuel HaNagid, the Persian poet Attar, and the Arab poet Labid. These poems will linger in memory and, I hope, rouse a desire in the reader to investigate such exquisite work more closely.
For me, these years have been like a non-stop, racy, irreverent conversation—and sometimes a quarrel—in the Mermaid Tavern. Friendships have blossomed out of my marginal comments and, on occasion, my hectorings. As a devout letter writer, I’ve delighted in corresponding with writers in Wichita, Strasbourg, Jerusalem, and a thousand places in between. Occasionally the discovery of a good poem in the slush pile has made my day. (We editors all like to believe that had Emily Dickinson submitted her poems to us, rather than to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, we would have spotted and nurtured her genius; such fantasies help divert us from the dirt-in-the-fingernails task of weeding repetitions.) And perhaps most satisfying of all has been watching young writers metamorphose from talented apprentices to brilliant reviewers.
The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Sex have been perennial bestsellers. A book entitled The Joy of Editing would sell maybe a dozen copies before being rushed to the pulping machine. But I would gladly write it. When I stumbled into the role of editor, I was only vaguely aware that Parnassus is a mountain in Greece sacred to the Nine Muses. I quickly learned that editing was a calling that demanded a steep levy of time, toil, and imagination. Lugging pork up Parnassus has been, at moments, a Sisyphean task, but mostly it’s been an exhilarating challenge, crowned by spectacular vistas. Parnassah, in Hebrew, means prosperity—by editorial prestidigitation, I’ve managed to marry my Hebraism to my Hellenism.