Editing my second issue of
Ploughshares, in my seventy-third year, I look back on a life's worth of editing. It began in high school, continued at Harvard, then at Oxford. Late in my Oxford time, I took up editing poetry for the new
Paris Review, and lasted nine years. I edited or helped to edit three anthologies of poetry by contemporaries: last was the Penguin
Contemporary American Poets. In my fifties and sixties, I edited poetry for two monthly periodicals, and I did
Best American Poetry with David Lehman in 1989.
Why did I spend so much time judging the poetry of others, when I might have been writing or watching college basketball? I know why. I edited, especially in the early years, in the urgent attempt to impose my taste on others, and to cut off at the pass any differing taste. It seemed to me imperative that
these poems flourish and that
those poems wither and die. Editing tries to assert power, such as it is, over the formation of a contemporary canon; the best editing is combative and passionate. I published people I had known: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Geoffrey Hill, Thom Gunn. I published poets I found in other periodicals, and recruited: James Wright, Louis Simpson.
And I made gross mistakes. Working for
The Paris Review back in the 1950's, I wanted to make it the voice of a generation -- yet managed to reject Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Assertive editing makes for egregious error-both in accepting and in rejecting -- but it is still preferable to passive editing. With passion, one puts pearls
and boll weevils into the pancakes. Without it, one cooks a tasteless sludge of the merely
At a certain age, such passion begins to wane, and with it the conviction of the vast importance of one's taste. Editing this
Ploughshares was the most difficult editing I have done, and it is because of my age. I believe I can still discriminate -- readers of this issue will decide for themselves -- but I found judgment hard, in the matter of poems taken and of many poems turned away.
That judgment should deteriorate with age, or become less firm, is noted but little discussed. When I was in my mid-twenties, I was horrified when a fifty-year-old poet told me he could no longer tell the young poets apart. Since then, I have seen taste, or passionate preference, desert my contemporaries in their forties and in every decade thereafter. It becomes more difficult to summon or exercise the discrimination one had (or meant to have) when one was young, and I fear I am beginning to lose my old improbable fierce certitude. Before judgment begins to feel too arbitrary, one should leave editing. I will edit no more issues of journals. I will judge no more contests.
But . . . this final editing project pleases me greatly, as I hope it will please others. I am delighted that these writers -- friends and strangers, some of whom are five decades younger than I am -- have allowed me to print their brilliant work.