Last October Cath Mason and Bob Strozier taught an OLLI course on “New Yorker Poetry,” and this year they’re back with a sequel, “Here We Come! More Poems from the New Yorker,” on Thursday, October 19, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the Compton Park Azalea Room. (Call 813-974-5848 to register.)
Bob wrote the following introduction to last year’s course, and we offer it here as both a stand-alone love letter to the magazine and as an enticement to enroll in the upcoming course. — Editors
Growing up, I don’t remember reading much poetry in the The New Yorker unless it was by Ogden Nash, high priest of light verse. Remembered, among other things, for:
“Candy is dandy/But liquor is quicker.”
And “The Cow.”
“The cow is of the bovine ilk/One end is moo, the other, milk.”
Speaking of farm animals, in March of 1976 I happened across a New Yorker poem about a pig that caught me completely off-guard and left me in tears. It was “St. Francis and the Sow,” by Pulitzer Prize winner, Galway Kinnell, which turned out to be one of his greatest poems. I still get teary when I read it.
Another poem that stayed with me was “Falling” by James Dickey, based on a true story, about a stewardess who fell out of an airplane. Gradually, checking out the poems became as obligatory as reading cartoons.
A brief bit of background. The New Yorker, a weekly humor magazine, was founded by Harold Ross in 1925—an issue cost 15 cents. Ross famously declared in a prospectus for the publication: “It’s not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The magazine—sophisticated, sly, witty—quickly attracted a host of terrific writers.
Alexander Woollcott once observed that “Ross resembled a dishonest Abraham Lincoln,” whereas he was, in fact, a stickler for accuracy and clarity, which laid the groundwork for the future. Today The New Yorker is legendary for the reliability of its reporting and, at last count, employed 16 fact-checkers full time.
When Ross died in l952, William Shawn succeeded him and served as editor until l987, when he was replaced by Robert Gottlieb. Though still the best magazine going, The New Yorker under Shawn, who was reserved and reclusive, began to feel a little heavy-handed after a while. And he could be prudish and quirky too, objecting to certain words, like “balding” and “pimples,” for instance. W.D. Snodgrass had a poem rejected because he refused to remove the word “dandruff.”
After the editorships of Gottlieb and then Tina Brown—neither good fits—David Remick took the helm in 1998, and he’s done wonders for the magazine. Circulation rose 12.3 percent last year, astonishing especially given that so many publications are going defunct these days. Also, the magazine earns more revenue from circulation than advertising—unheard of in publishing. That’s clearly because the magazine has such a solid base of loyal readers.
While The New Yorker has changed enormously over the years, in a very basic sense it hasn’t changed at all. Yes, it’s become a pre-eminent forum for serious journalism, fiction, and poetry; in 2016, for instance, it became the first magazine to receive a Pulitzer Prize for writing—and now has won six. But the magazine is still playful—droll, wicked, fun. And all the key elements— typography, layout, covers, cartoons, artwork, and so on—have remained fundamentally the same.
Most amazing, The New Yorker is a weekly! I’ve been an editor at several monthlies, and in the old days you were always working up to the last minute, everybody in a state of high frenzy chewing maniacally on stale pizza. A weekly—can’t even imagine.
Poetry actually got off to a rocky start at The NewYorker. Founder Ross kept trying to get rid of it—presumably because metaphors are hard to fact-check—but fortunately other editors argued him down. Eventually Ross named William Maxwell first poetry editor, saying “no poem gets published if he doesn’t understand it.”
Today an average of—get this—100 poems a day are submitted to The New Yorker—it publishes two a week. Response time averages six months; payment per poem is generally $350. Interestingly, The New Yorker—though extremely tough to break into—can be very supportive of poets it admires. The magazine has published nearly 200 of W.S. Merwin’s poems and short stories, for instance.
Some people, it should be said, find The New Yorker aloof, pretentious, and precious, and I’m sure many readers are intimidated by some of its poetry, especially when it’s one of those dense, two-page translations about something like the breakup of the Ottoman Empire as told by a half-witted sheepherder who’s really the mouthpiece for the Oracle of Delphi.
Naively—in preparation for this class—I tried to find some way of categorizing the remarkably wide range of poems that have appeared in the magazine over the years, but it was a fool’s errand.
I had more luck looking at things historically. One important defining period for The New Yorker was World War II. In confronting the horrors of warfare, the magazine grew in prominence and stature. After the War ended, for instance, John Hersey’s essay “Hiroshima” filled an entire issue.
And poetry rose to the occasion too, addressing not only the War but, increasingly, more serious issues generally, with poems like: “Nightmare for Future Reference” by Stephen Vincent Benet, “In Time of Civil War” by Harold Lewis Cook, and “Barroom Matins” by Louis MacNiece.
Which brings us, by fits and starts, to today. Paul Muldoon, poetry editor from 2007-17, assessed the state of affairs in an interview a few years back. “There’s an anthology published each year called The Best of American Poetry, and I am very heartened – as well as by what I read at The New Yorker – by the extraordinary range and variety of American poetry. There’s lots of great work being done here these days.” As for what he’s looking for: “I’m interested in poems that are first-rate. After that I’m not too concerned if they come from Queens or Queensland.”
A view that still prevails, no doubt, but since Kevin Young became poetry editor in 2017, I’d guess the magazine has widened its scope and published a greater proportion of poems representing different countries, cultures, and ethnic groups.
But enough with the intro, let’s celebrate a magazine that was 97 years young in April by reading out loud and enjoying some terrific poems.
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings. He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.
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