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Nobody Needs Poetry

November 08, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

The Pope of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury were once surprised to find themselves in the same taxi. There was a long silence. Then the Archbishop said, "Well, Your Holiness, there's no reason we shouldn't talk. After all, we both worship the same God." "Yes, Your Grace," the Pope replied, "you in your way, and we in His."

This story, which I heard from an English Jesuit, is apocryphal, which is to say that it is more than a simple joke. Jokes are funny. Apocryphal stories are, in addition, adroit at capturing something we all know, or think we know.

The story of poetry at the Los Angeles Times became apocryphal in this sense almost immediately after we announced, last April 12: "We shall continue, yes, to review a few books of poetry as books, but our main coverage of the genre will be one brief poem in each Sunday issue of The Book Review with just a word about its author and the new collection from which it has been taken." Hardly had these dull words been printed than they began to be sharpened into something quite other than they were, but something perhaps interesting in its own right.

Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post, said that The Times had "gotten out of the business of reviewing poetry" but added that, like it or not, such a move was perhaps the inevitable result of the waning of popular interest in poetry. Getting out of the poetry business, he wrote, was "something that newspaper book review editors have for years yearned, in their innermost hearts, to do."

Yardley got the facts wrong--The Times had not "gotten out of the business"--but in a way he got the story right. Elsewhere, the same apocryphal version arose independently. Many seem to have made a negative inference from the fact that poets had demonstrated against The Times. Surely (the inference went) poets would not have demonstrated against anything less than the full elimination of poetry reviews; therefore, poetry reviews must have been eliminated. This is the version of the story that was discussed some weeks ago in New York at a meeting of the National Book Critics Circle. Just two weeks ago, the same version, still in circulation, prompted National Public Radio to invite The Times' participation in a special program on poetry in America.

That the story is apocryphal is of less interest than that it has been so widely believed. This is what makes it, so to speak, true apocrypha. How did you feel when you heard that the last wild condor had been captured and brought to the zoo? Sad but not altogether surprised? Had you seen it coming? I think that by a similar process the story of poetry at The Times was turned into a sad story that people had seen coming. Poetry, like some remote, heroic, splendidly vulnerable beast, was (they knew this, somehow, before the report) approaching its extinction.

Does The Times bear some responsibility for having created this somber expectation? If so, then so does the New York Times.

In September, as preparations began for this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, I had occasion to go through a full year's worth of several newspapers' book sections. The exercise prompted me to start counting, and the results were something of a surprise. The Times--from March 29, 1987, when we began reducing the number of poetry reviews, through Aug. 30, 1987--had published 13 such reviews, including two of poetry criticism. During the same period, by my count, the New York Times Book Review had published only 11 reviews of similar books, covering, typically, three books per review.

Now, the New York Times Book Review is roughly three times the size of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. This would seem to mean that, even after the controversial change, the Los Angeles Times has been publishing poetry reviews at roughly three times the rate of the New York Times Book Review. (I leave aside the fact that during this same period the Los Angeles Times Book Review also published 27 poems.)

But I do not mean to suggest that the New York Times should publish more reviews of poetry, or fewer, or any particular amount. For although these numbers have some interest, I doubt that either newspaper can be said to have caused the broad public attitude--poetry as endangered species--that I mentioned above. That attitude must have deeper roots.

When I ask myself what those roots might be, I remember an afternoon 10 years ago with this year's Nobel laureate in literature, Joseph Brodsky. We met on a rainy afternoon in a cafe in Greenwich Village and talked, as I recall, not about the Soviet Union or censorship or any of what might be called the Nobel topics. Instead, we talked about Hebrew and not just about words but also about individual letters: their shapes, their origins, what you could do with them. A conversation of no consequence whatsoever.

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