The Same Old Song

So I’m a fan of The Atlantic in general. I like their politics, I like their writers and I like that they include poetry which fewer and fewer non-literary publications do with any seriousness. And generally I like their poets and the poems they select. But this month it struck me that it’s been some time since I’ve seen anything really surprising or new in their selection of poetry.

Now, to be fair, they are not a poetry publication, and so why should I expect newness and surprise in their selection? But that equates to saying that people reading The Atlantic don’t want new, interesting poetry but rather the same comfortable lyrical confessionalism that has been the mainstream of poetry for decades now. And I think that Atlantic readers are more sophisticated in their aesthetic possibilities than that.

This is the problem that critics of The New Yorker or, for the more poetic-minded, Poetry Magazine have. That the publications that are responsible for introducing a lot of people to poetry that they otherwise might not encounter fail in encouraging newness, innovation, experimentation or even in encouraging writers who are not already established names. No one is surprised to see a poem by Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, or Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams in the current issue of The Atlantic. Or take June: Billy Collins and Jane Hirshfield. Really? I’m not saying that these poets aren’t worth reading, because clearly they are (especially Williams whose work seems to be getting more interesting). But that we already know they’re worth reading.

Ok, so the same old song about how the literary establishment is exclusive and publications like The New Yorker, etc. claim literary authority by publishing the already-well-known and prize-winning poets who may or may not happen to be friends of the editor, blah blah blah. I don’t know that I have much new to add to it, except that The Atlantic hadn’t in my mind been one that fell into that type of publication. And I don’t think it has to be, in order to claim literary authority. I was going to give examples of unusual choices they’d made in the past, but I frankly can’t find any…so maybe this is more an indictment of my own assumptions about the kind of publication The Atlantic is.

2 comments

  1. R

    To be honest, I’ve never thought of The New Yorker as a literary authority, I don’t read the poetry, and I never read the fiction. And when I get an all-fiction issue, I feel cheated somehow. Poetry Magazine would be a whole different can of worms, of course, but of the New Yorker readers I know, I don’t think one of us reads it for the literature. We’re all in it for the current events and the political takes, I think.

    Although I do love me some Shouts & Murmurs. But even that’s usually apropos of something in the current events spectrum.

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    • I think that’s exactly my point! One doesn’t read The New Yorker for the literature, it’s just a few token well-established poets and fiction writers thrown in. They’ve long since passed their time of defining literary tastes, now they merely reinforce the establishment of a few literary voices while giving their readers the opportunity to pretend they’re on the cutting edge of literature. I can’t tell you how many people immediately begin talking about poems they’ve read in The New Yorker when they learn that I’m a poet. It’s a safe venue for established poets to reach a mostly ambivalent audience. But I don’t think it used to be, and I don’t think it has to be. If their poetry and fiction editors were willing to broaden their pool even slightly and include new innovative voices, they’d once again be worth reading for the literature.

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