Monday, November 10, 2014

A Poet's Anecdote

As you may have noticed from my selection of poems, I'm a fan of Denise Levertov. I know a bit about her history but am still in the process exploring it and will write more in the future. For the time being I thought I ought to mention a quote that I recently came across, because it relates to some of my other posts.

For an outsider it is a little difficult to see how the publishing industry works. Like any industry, there is probably a lot of "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." You have to be chummy with the right people and do them favors. This applied to Denise Levertov as much as anyone else. One of her former students, Mark Pawlak, recounts this conversation he had with her in 1975:

I asked Denise why it is that I have never seen one of her books reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. "About ten years ago," she explained, "they used to regularly ask me to write reviews. I did it for a while but found such reviewing to be making catty remarks about other authors, and that became distasteful to me. I eventually made a pact with myself not to do so any longer and began to turn down the offers from the Times, until they realized what was up and they stopped asking me. I think the editors were offended that I would turn them down because they never once since have run a review of any of my books, which they always used to do.

This is interesting, because even though Levertov is not exactly a household name, she was then and still is recognized as a major poet and regularly appears in anthologies of twentieth century American poets. While it may be obvious to insiders, casual readers of the Times may never realize how biased it can be in the selection of books to review. As an observer of the NYRB, I get the sense that similar activities occur behind the scenes there too. The NYRB seems to seek something that resembles exclusive rights on celebrity writers and public intellectuals, and it then represents them like a record producer so that the author and the publication both glow in unison as icons of the literary elite. In the case of the NYRB, which deals with a much narrower range of writers and books than the Times, there seems to be a specific emphasis on increasing the prestige of the publication. From both the Times and the NYRB, and probably The New Yorker, the reader may get a false sense of the cutting edge. The underlying activities are ultimately those of smarmy businessmen plying their trades. Those who take it all in uncritically are not entirely different from rednecks in pickups who listen to Rush Limbaugh on their radios.

One of the things I like about Levertov's poems is their honesty. As an honest person myself, I have long recognized that there is a price to pay for it.

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