We enlist poetry to help us bid farewell to a friend from Poetry

January 3, 2013
By

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop. But that doesn’t preclude a wistful desire that we could somehow, quantum-style, both let people go and keep them where they’ve so long seemed to belong. (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”?)

That was our thought, shared, we suspect, by countless fans of poetry, when we heard that Christian Wiman would be leaving his post as editor of Poetry magazine at the end of June. He’ll be joining the faculty of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School, which seems like a good home for a writer who, as the copy describing his forthcoming book, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, puts it, “has had two constants in his life, two things that have defined him and given him solace in his times of need: faith and verse.”

Wiman will leave behind a magazine that he and coeditor Don Share have shepherded to unprecedented prominence and success. Under their stewardship, Poetry tripled its circulation and won two national magazine awards, the first in its history.

Open Door cover

And then there was the centennial–which is where Chicago comes in. We are proud to have been able to partner with Poetry, Share, and Wiman to publish The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of “Poetry” Magazine, a centennial anthology that simultaneously honored the past and pointed to the future. “Surely the history of American poetry is in this elegant, commanding volume,” wrote the Washington Independent Review of Books, while the Weekly Standard praised it for offering “an insightful read of poetry’s barometric pressure over the last century,” and reminding readers “what a large role a small beginning (such as a little magazine) can play in a culture in which poetry may ‘make nothing happen’ but it makes sense.”

How, then, does one bid farewell to a poet? (It’s the lyric version of “What do you get for the person who has everything?”) Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is far too dark and dour for someone who’s merely changing jobs rather than crossing the bar; Herrick’s “Farewell to Sack” (“That which subverts whole nature, grief and care, / Vexation of the mind, and damn’d despair.”), though it comes to mind any time there’s a goodbye, is wholly inappropriate. There’s always Shakespeare, of course, but as with Austen or Nabokov, quoting the Bard carries risk: what’s quoted in seriousness, sincerity, and clarity so often was written with irony and ambiguity.

So we turn to Marianne Moore, queen of deceptive simplicity, and the close of a letter she wrote to Elizabeth Bishop on September 8, 1935, telling Bishop “what it is perfectly unnecessary to tell you–that we shall miss you.” And from there to Wiman’s own words–it never hurts to quote a person to himself, unless he’s a politician–from the introduction to The Open Door:

“What do you do?” asks the man on the airplane, and for a moment every American poet pauses as one, feeling that face-off between spiritual integrity and social insecurity. And that’s sort of what we feel too, Don and I, after being buried under a hundred years of poems. Humility, first: to think of all the lives behind this work, and the element of chance that has made us, for a moment, the judges of it. And pride: to be a part of it, to have our own lives so richly entangled.

Best wishes, Chris. May Poetry be so fortunate in its stewards in the coming hundred years.

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