The last time I edited Ploughshares I knew all the contributors personally and solicited work from them. This time, the opposite is almost literally true: I deliberately set myself the task of confronting what came unsolicited to the magazine and was more on the lookout for work that promised than for names that clicked.
Of course, there were moments when I regretted undertaking to do it this way. Last fall, as the jiffy-bags thumped unrelentingly through the mail-box in Dublin and the surfaces of the house began to drift with hundreds of strange poems, I constantly doubted whether I could keep trusting my ear and my instinct. I naturally incline to poetry where the language has a high specific gravity (and was therefore glad to come upon Sven Birkerts' essay among the verse manuscripts) but the dominant note I was hearing was more relaxed, open-weave, temperate, purposeful. I responded easily to poems which sprang directly from a thoroughly realized personal landscape -- like John Drury's and Rita Dove's -- and to one-off, gifted "quickies", but it took me longer to respond to the more composed and typically American voices.
These voices, often a little melancholy, a little ironical, not a little cultivated seem to reflect the disappearance from the poetic horizon of the great driven careers -- Lowell's, Berryman's, Plath's -- and the reappearance in the public life of a slightly helpless attitude to the course being taken by the big ship of state -- half liner, half aircraft carrier -- as it looms out of and over the common life. Hopper rather than Hieronymus Bosch is the spirit that presides in much of the work that I looked at. Here are poets of the microcosm, of the cherished intimate, graceful and fluent and bittersweet as in the work of Susan Donnelly, or playful and experienced as in the work of Mark Halliday and Roger Mitchell. Yet here too are poets with stories to tell, ready to trust the narrative impulse again for purposes didactic, satirical or oneiric. I was anxious to be receptive to such different modes and made myself a sort of litmus, ready to take a colouring from the various poetic elements I was encountering.
Occasionally, the ploughshares broke new ground, but its usual work was to plough up the old ground and to cross-plough its own furrows. As editor, I approached the task in something of this traditional role and regarded my work in the light of the old formula I learned in my school science class: to work is to move a certain mass through a certain distance. Which is what this magazine exists to do.