Changing the landscape of verse

The $100 million question: Can Christian Wiman make you appreciate poetry?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Poet and editor Christian Wiman admits that he is "terrible with money." He has never had a lot of it and is careful about what he spends. So when he began his current job almost a year ago, he hesitated before making his first big purchase: a box of paper clips. The irony here is that Mr. Wiman edits Poetry magazine, the richest literary publication in the United States.

Wiman's unease with money is just one example of how he defies expectation. As editor of Poetry, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world ($35 a year), he holds one of the most influential - and enviable - literary jobs. Everywhere he goes, poets want something from him. Yet when a guest arrives at his Chicago office, the first thing he does is offer her a cup of tea and apologize that there isn't anything else.

This impression - of unexpected contradictions - reveals a lot about a man who, at 37, is quietly reshaping the literary landscape. Since he began at Poetry, Wiman has already restored an energy and edge that had been missing for some time. The poems are sharper, more finely crafted, with opening lines that crackle. The prose, likewise, is more incisive and readable (www.poetrymagazine.org).

Recommended: Poetry quiz: Can you match the poet to the poem?

Wiman says his goals are twofold: to publish the best poetry being written and to "create a place for everyone." To achieve the latter, he's introduced several features to the 92-year-old journal, which helped launch the careers of major poets, such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg.

These new additions include "debates" by poets - "Is Garrison Keillor good for poetry?" - and editorials in which Wiman raises pointed questions, such as: "Should poetry survive? What is the point of persisting with this art at this time?"

Future issues will also contain commentaries by nonpoets. Journalist Michael Lewis, for example, will explain why he doesn't like contemporary verse.

That frank, self-critical tone marks a major shift for Poetry - circulation 11,000 - which is trying to attract a wider, more general audience to the magazine and the art form. The famous $100 million gift from heiress Ruth Lilly in 2002 vaulted the magazine into the public imagination briefly. But now Wiman and his colleagues at the Poetry Foundation, the magazine's publisher, must turn all that attention - and all that money - into something deeper and more lasting. If he succeeds, he'll have found the genre's holy grail and become the most unexpected of heroes.

When his appointment was announced in May 2003, he was unknown to many in the literary world. Some poets wondered why a more seasoned writer, such as F.D. Reeve, wasn't offered the post. Wiman, however, represents a new generation, a fresh way of thinking.

As a teen he worked in Texas oil fields, and in college he studied economics until his junior year when he began to write seriously and switched to an English major. After graduation, he held several teaching posts, including one at Stanford University. But he also traveled the globe, living briefly in England, Mexico, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic. These experiences add depth to his writing and shape his open-minded perspective.

That's crucial, say people at the Poetry Foundation, because no other literary organization has ever had the challenge of deciding how to spend so much money. What is the best way to support writers and build a long-term audience?

For Wiman, it's all about finding balance, as he would when writing a poem. There must be both urgency and restraint, intellect and emotion. Form and function must intertwine.

That's the case with Wiman's own poetry, which has earned him several awards - including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Modern Poetry Association (now the Poetry Foundation). Critics have praised Wiman's work for its fresh language and graceful cadences: "A willow swayed so slow/ When we went by it seemed submerged in water." His rhymed poems have a subtle precision:

Postolka (Prague)

When I was learning words
and you were in the bath
there was a flurry of small birds
and in the aftermath

of all that panicked flight,
as if the red dusk willed
a concentration of its light:
a falcon on the sill....

Wiman's mix of innovative thinking and attention to craftsmanship - which some find antiquated - distinguishes him as both an editor and poet. His approach to his duties is straightforward, no-nonsense, as one might expect from a man who grew up in the stark landscape of west Texas. He and two assistants handle the 90,000 poems that Poetry receives annually. His infrequent notes to contributors are brief. He prefers to spend his time in strategy meetings with the foundation's three-member staff, which is planning education programs for the local and national level.

Even Wiman's office reflects his priorities. The small room contains two bookcases, purchased by the foundation, and a desk, which was donated. There are no curtains or blinds on the large window; afternoon sun is almost overwhelming. The one whimsical touch in the room is a small plastic basketball, which Wiman squeezes when he reads manuscripts.

Wiman expects writers to pay attention to form - the scaffolding that supports a poem. "The most powerful effect in art is the formal effect," he says, with just a hint of a drawl. But he quickly adds that "the need for formal order and an [emotional] response to experience have to be in equal measures."

When Joseph Parisi - his predecessor - asked Wiman to take the position, the well-traveled Texan was stunned by the offer. He had published poems, book reviews, and critical essays in the magazine, but he had no editorial experience. "I thought he would ask me to edit a single issue," recalls the soft-spoken Wiman.

Once he caught his breath, "I played it cool," he says. But "I was thinking of everything I could do with the magazine."

What Wiman didn't consider was how Poetry would change his life. Suddenly, he felt the need to project a more formal, dignified image, in keeping with the magazine's venerable history. There's a slight stiffness to his walk, and he rarely offers more than a half smile.

More surprising, perhaps, was the chilling effect that editing has had on his writing. He has penned almost nothing - except editorials - in the last year, he says. All of his creative energy has gone into the magazine.

That's the scariest part, he acknowledges. "If you're using poetry to organize your life and then poetry is denied to you, you've got a problem."

Elizabeth Lund is on the Monitor staff. To read her poetry blog, visit blogs.csmonitor.com/the_poetic_life/.

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