February 6, 2007KR Blog

Little Magazines: A Reader’s Recollections

Inspired by David Lynn’s considerations of the little magazine in the nurturing and development of literary culture, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of literary magazines in my own formation as a reader of contemporary poetry. As I might have mentioned in an earlier post, the college that I attended was quite small, about 120 students. Saint Meinrad College was a Roman Catholic seminary run by Benedictine monks, though most of the professors were laypersons. I thought that the education was quite good, as I still think to this day. But with only three members, the English Department had its six hands full with the task of getting us up to speed on the literature extending from the medieval period to roughly the middle of the twentieth century; there was little time or staffing to undertake the teaching of courses in much of anything like contemporary writing. As I recall, our course in the History of Poetry ended somewhere near the precincts of Dylan Thomas. I spent much of my time in college reading and rereading the prose and poetry of T. S. Eliot, about whose work I wrote my senior project, and with whom I was something like obsessed for a time. Luckily, I learned from Eliot himself that sometimes it can even be salutary to be dominated by a strong literary personality, so long as one comes out on the other side of the obsession.

Nor did the college have any creative writing courses. Rather, those of us who wrote poems tended to show our work to each other, to comment on each other’s work, and to talk abou the writing we loved. We formed a rather loosely organized literary society. It was one of my literary confreres who first told me about Poetry Northwest, which I dutifully subscribed to. There were many afternoons after classes that I would lie in bed reading my copies of Poetry Northwest, trying to make connections between what these writers were doing and what had been done by the grand figures we’d studied in poetry class: Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Hopkins, Dickinson, Eliot. The terms of the new poetic creations were not always clear–perhaps they were never really clear to me–but at least I was learning something about discontinuity and continuity, the need to create a new literary vocabulary and manner still recognizable as poetry. If I had found in the pages of Poetry Northwest work that I could recognize in the precise terms of those figures from the past, would it have been worthwhile to read? I doubt it, for I already had the work of Donne, Dickinson, and Eliot, and did not need to see work that merely repeated what they did. In art, mere repetition is merely death. In his comments on Milton’s “Lycidas, Dr. Johnson writes that in the poem “there is no art, for there is nothing new.” Of course I think he’s wrong in his conclusion, though his major premise remains quite true: if there is nothing new, there is no art.

To say all this is not to assert that all those poems appearing in Poetry Northwest, any more than those that appear in any given issue of any literary magazine of any age, equal the stature of those grand figures of the past. In fact, I believe it would be a mistake to expect literary magazines consistently to deliver great works page after page, issue after issue–not that it’s a bad thing at all when a given magazine or journal publishes something that lasts for generations if not ages, but it seems to me that such an occurrence will remain the marvelous exception. For I believe that one vital function of literary magazines is to showcase contemporary writers’ struggles to make true art, struggles to alter the tradition by adding something to it that has not occurred before. Not only does it not much matter, at least to me, that in some sense the bulk of what gets published turns out to be failed efforts, it doesn’t even matter that many of the experiments, from magazine to magazine, poet to poet, turn out to sound much the same. Is there really any reason to expect otherwise? I suspect that there is quite a bit of similarity in the procedures of experimentation from one physics lab or one chemistry lab to another. Why expect something vastly different in the literary experiments that show up in the pages of our magazines? What matters is the pressure one feels exerted by the tradition as these new poets labor to do something that has not been done before. I find something edifying in the effort. In fact, I suspect that part of the reason we can have a feel for the weight and grandeur of the past is that we have the example of contemporary practitioners bending under the tradition’s weight. If once in a while a contemporary practitioner delivers a grand failure, this is all to the good. And if once in a while we get a grand success, we should count ourselves as lucky. Little magazines provide part of the ferment out which such grand results arise.

And of course such successes do take place. My college’s back issues of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse went back to about the forties, so it was not until a trip with a friend to Indiana University that I found in the stacks the June 1915 issue, which first published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” For me it was like handling a first-class relic, though strictly speaking it would not even qualify for the third rank. (I shall leave it for another entry to explain the classes of relics.) I was surprised the magazine did not turn to light and float across the room.

Around the time I was a junior in college, a magazine began down the road, at the Indiana State University of Evansville (now the University of Southern Indiana), entitled The Reaper, edited by two young poets named Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell. Recently I ran across my copy of an early issue, which includes the work of another young poet, one named Jorie Graham. This was in the early eighties before, of course, Graham won the Pulitzer Prize and became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. To be quite honest, I’d forgotten that she appeared in The Reaper. I should like to think that I recognized the distinctiveness of her work, but I cannot claim to have been such a perceptive reader. Nevertheless, I was witnessing some results of the struggle to make something new.