An Interview with Herb Leibowitz: Editor of Parnassus
E-mail this site to a friend.
Since 1973, Herbert Leibowitz has edited Parnassus:
Poetry in Review, maintaining (along with his famously high standards)
a publication that has proven essential to contemporary poetry and to
those who read and write it. Printed
twice a year, the magazine provides a home for reviews that are decidedly
more than “reviews,” for veritable essays that most little magazines
would refuse to print on the grounds they are too long—or too
provocative. Like so many
other magazines, keeping Parnassus alive all these years has been difficult, requiring
grant-writing acumen, fund-raising miracles, and a ferocious tenacity that
has kept its editor on the brink of exhaustion much of the time.
In addition to manning the helm at Parnassus,
Leibowitz has written a study of Hart Crane, and
a landmark book on American autobiographers, Fabricating
is now at work on a massive biography of William Carlos Williams.
I first met Herb in 1990. Hoping to secure a position as assistant editor at Parnassus, one that would qualify me for work-study hours at Columbia, I arranged a lunchtime interview in a tiny, book-swollen Union Square office (the magazine is now headquartered in a swankier Upper-West Side suite). After asking me what I “thought of” several living poets—our conversation included the names Mona Van Duyn, John Ashbery, and Alice Fulton (whose glamorous black and white photograph was tacked up to a window sill)—he handed me a hefty type-written essay, with the author’s name obscured, and asked me to mark it up over the weekend. My edits were a bit too light for Herb’s liking when I returned the following week—and it turned out that the essay was by Helen Vendler—but he hired me anyway, even kept me on board for the duration of my years at Columbia. Herb runs a rigorous editorial workshop. No star critic or celebrated poet receives any special treatment; all essays are returned covered with ink, not to mention frank, sometimes stinging marginalia (“Surely, you are capable of better here…”); and it is not unusual for essays to be turned down for publication after going through several elaborate revisions. This kind of relentlessness helps to assure that Parnassus publishes essays that are necessary reading (and re-reading) for poets, essays which are meant to stand the test of time as much as the poems they scrutinize so gorgeously.
Q: How did you end up as the editor of Parnassus in the first place? Can you tell me a little about the magazine in its infancy?
My landing the editorship of Parnassus was happenstance. I had published a series of omnibus reviews of new books of poetry in The Hudson Review, The New Leader, and The New York Times Book Review (when John Leonard was editor, the Sunday book supplement wasn't stodgy or philistine, but a forum for lively, well-argued reviews). I also had a welcome stint on Salmagundi's editorial board for a few years. There are no stock options in literary consultancy, as you know, but I did get to read and evaluate a slew—a slough?—of manuscripts and occasionally to write a diplomatic rejection letter (a task that proved exceptionally useful when I took over the reins of Parnassus, or Pegasus, as someone called the magazine).
I cannot take credit for the idea and mission of the magazine. That
belongs to Stanley Lewis, who ran the beloved Parnassus
Bookshop on West 89th Street, across the street from our current
office. Stan had, quixotically, started a small press named after his son
David Lewis. I remember the first three publications: a novel by Maurice
Blanchot dressed in a funereal black dust jacket; a huge tome on James
Joyce by Helene Cixous, long before she became an academic celebrity; and
a respectable book of poems by Fred Nicklaus (no relation to the golfer).
The Sunday book sections and the quarterlies lavished a lot of attention
on the Blanchot and Cixous, a harbinger of the enormous influence the
French critics would wield in Academe, but the Nicklaus languished, as if
quarantined because it carried the plague—not a single notice: a
The following week I was having lunch with my literary chum Nick Lyons,
and I recounted the above conversation.
To my surprise, he said, "Herbert, it's a terrific idea, and
what's more, you're the right person to edit such a magazine."
Nick's opinion carried considerable weight with me, and I was
looking around for a literary project that would have intellectual
substance and let me pursue my love of belletristic prose.
My heroes were Keats the magnificent writer of letters, Hazlitt,
Randall Jarrell, and D.
H. Lawrence (I hadn't read Virginia Woolf's essays yet, but I soon
admitted her to my pantheon).
Q: Founded on several whims, a pittance, and a bit of purple prose from Richard Wilbur? That's the stuff of fairy-tales—or disaster. I think of Gertrude Stein’s quip about all the little magazines that died to set verse free. How did this enterprise manage to survive the first few years?
Stein's comment is a witty half-truth. She did not much follow the route
of little magazines, though there were plenty of avant-garde journals
around supposedly scanning the horizon and the boulevards of Paris for
innovative work, with a life-span, as she notes, of a dim firefly. She
yearned for glory, wanted to be published in the posh middlebrow salons,
like The Atlantic Monthly. You may recall that when William Carlos
Williams visited her in her famous rue de Fleurus apartment, she showed
him all the unpublished manuscripts she had stashed in an armoire. She
asked his advice what to do with them, as if he were an expert in getting
published, and he replied, "I'd choose the best ones and throw away
the rest." (The good doctor had an impish side that sometimes incited
such remarks.) "Well, she replied icily, "Literature is
obviously not your metier." But he did admire her radical experiments
and published one of the first smart appreciations of her prose. Little
magazines were his saviors, Williams often said in interviews, because it
kept his work before the public. You can bet that I've quoted that
sentence a few times
Q: Though you say you have operated from the start without a “manifesto” or “grand strategy,” it is clear that the essays found in Parnassus differ substantially from the majority of poetry reviews published in this country—you know, the generic five-paragraph “quote and praise” exercises we find hidden in the back pages of little magazines. So what is it that Parnassus reviews share (other than your Midas touch) and what makes them so distinctive?
are many reasons why the essays in Parnassus differ from their
(half?) sisters and brothers in other poetry journals. First of all,
space. Of course the feuilleton
in the hands of a masterful writer—Pound and Berlioz spring immediately
to mind—can put more provocative and provoking ideas and scathing
judgments into a short space than other poet-critics in thirty pages:
Pound's gists and piths, though he also played the poetry nag in many
clownish voices. But the "In Brief" review, whether in Publishers
Weekly or The New York Times
Book Review, is
nearly always a cursory summary of little use to the poet under review,
unless being noticed at all is better than invisibility (an adage that
cries out for a century in mothballs).
I've called this debasement of language, you know, “Amazing
Gracelessness.” It's horrific to think that poets, who should love the word
most ardently, go on a killing spree when they write poetry criticism,
their weapons of choice being solecisms, neologisms, and pretentious
abstractions (I can supply hundreds of examples). Several years ago, I got
an essay from a well-known critic-scholar who held a chair at a
distinguished Southern university. The essay he submitted was execrably
written and unreadable. I marked up the manuscript and grew more and more
exasperated with each passing page. I couldn't get to the end. In my
rejection letter, I told him, if you read a few paragraphs to the poets
and men of letters—Keats, Hazlitt, Benjamin Haydon—gathered at the
Mermaid Tavern, they would flee, appalled, into the foggy London night. Parnassus
is loved by stylists because our prose is literary prose (I can't always
recruit enough writers to take on assignments, so we also run essays
without the sheen and wit I'm talking about; at least they reach a
sustained level of clarity—and impeccable grammar). We once got in a
piece that had some lively insights but whose prose was riddled with
errors in syntax, spelling, punctuation, which we corrected and returned
to the author. To our astonishment, this essay soon appeared in a
prominent poetry magazine with all the mistakes intact.
Poets—there are honorable exceptions like Seamus Heaney—have grown
lazy. I suspect that because
they teach young poets in M.F.A. programs and sometimes launch their
students' careers by choosing a manuscript for a prize or publishing the
poems in a respectable magazine, they feel they've satisfied their
obligation. When I'm told by a poet that he can't contribute a
review-essay because he's working on his own poems, I don't protest.
That's a legitimate reason to turn down an invitation. But just as often a
poet will say I can only write favorable reviews. This line irks me
because it forecloses any possibility of an edgy, even controversial
debate about important issues. For example, take the subject of syntax and
rhythm. I would argue (it's a pet peeve of mine) that poets pay minimum
attention to these related keystones of their art. Poems come off the
assembly line abounding in sentence fragments and strings of short,
declarative sentences. It's as if only punched-out statements are allowed.
Possibly poets are afraid of losing their way in the dark woods of a
complex sentence where subtext often lurks. Obviously a short sentence or
a fragment can be effectively dropped into a stanza, or work as a dramatic
curtain line that reverberates in the reader's mind and arouses a desire
to reread the passage. But an unvaried diet of the above leads to
simplistic thoughts and monotonous rhythms: an absence of music. Shouldn't
a reviewer point out such lapses to a poet, whether a veteran or a novice?
Q. I’m intrigued by your remark that our poets have become too lazy—or distracted—to bother writing reviews. Wouldn’t it be safe to say that our editors have become too lazy to bother with them as well? One almost gets the sense that magazine editors approach the matter of poetry reviewing with certain trepidation, as if poetry is an endangered species that cannot withstand anything more than the most delicate intervention now and then. You are clearly not thinking along these lines. So why is reviewing poetry so important? Though I could ask, “does poetry matter?” I’d rather ask, “does reviewing matter?”
reviewing matter?" That could be construed as inflammatory, but it
At its best, the art of reviewing conducts a civilized and engaging
conversation with the poet and with readers who are curious about how
poems are put together, why some succeed and others fail. Above all,
reviewing demands the exercise of informed judgment
and that requires knowledge, analytical power, style, fairness, not short
sound bytes or pompous pronouncements. There's no Marine boot camp for
young reviewers—most M.F.A. programs, I believe, don't include reviewing
in their curriculum—though at Parnassus
we do put the rawboned recruits through their paces. It's gratifying
to see how rapidly some pick up the skills needed to be a trustworthy and
delightful reviewer. My impression is that editors shy away from assigning
reviews because it takes a lot of time (some of our contributors go
through three or four drafts before we approve the changes); editors
have to think hard about structural flaws and how the author can get rid
of them, have to possess a subtle ear for the pacing and music of
twenty-five pages worth of sentences and paragraphs, and of course they
must have perfect grammar. My
sense is that most editors, and this includes those men and women at most
of the trade houses who are responsible for choosing new books of poetry
and seeing them through the press, are untrained or careless shepherds.
They seem to rubberstamp the poems, not challenging poet A to tighten his
stanzas or poet B to toss out the squishy lines.