An Interview with Herb Leibowitz: Editor of Parnassus

Parnassus: Poetry in Review

As Interviewed By: Christopher Bakken

Interviewer’s Note: 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 Lives; he is now at work on a massive biography of William Carlos Williams.

[private]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 death knell.

But Stan was a determined man. One Saturday afternoon I came into the shop to browse the shelves for hidden treasures when Stan motioned me over to his cubicle. He was baffled by the stony silence that greeted Nicklaus’ book. I commiserated with him, but confessed that I wasn’t surprised. After a silence during which he lit his pipe, he asked me what I thought of an idea he had been mulling over: to start a magazine devoted to poetry reviews. Without a second’s hesitation, I replied, “It’s a terrible idea. Who will read it?” From the perspective of thirty years, I smile and wince at my snap judgment, but as far as readership and circulation go, I wasn’t a cynic but a prophet.

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).

I went back to Stan and asked if he was still serious about starting Parnassus. I had changed my mind and said I’d like to try my hand at being the founding editor. We quickly reached an agreement about the fee ($500, if memory serves, which probably came out to less than $2 an hour, but it was a labor of love); we printed stationery; I wrote to the publishers for review copies; and most important of all, Richard Wilbur, without even the benefit of a one-paragraph manifesto from me, gave us a wonderful blurb to help launch the magazine. But we were far from being on the literary map.

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?

Gertrude 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

While planning the first issues of Parnassus, I had no grand strategy to draw on. No manifesto appeared in the pages of our first issue, declaring war on the established poets and sneering at their complacencies and vowing to install a new regime that would shake up the world of poetry. I did not fancy myself an Earl of Northumberland, the kingmaker in Shakespeare’s history plays. I suppose I sailed without a compass, trusting in my aversion to orthodoxies. I would not be a captive of any school or style of poetry, and I’ve hewn to that policy. My tastes were eclectic and the magazine would mirror my love of variety and let a chorus of reviewers sing in different styles. The result is harmony, not cacophony.

The first issue was an odd assemblage. The first review that came in was Helen Vendler’s wonderful appraisal of Frank O’ Hara’s Collected Poems (it had pride of place). In rapid order I had on hand two short sketches by Ronald Johnson on “The Eye” and “The Ear,” the two senses poets most depend on; an appraisal of St.-John Perse and Paul Valery by Donald Sutherland, a classicist and the author of one of the first books on Gertrude Stein (Donald, a friend of Virgil Thomson’s, was recommended to me by Hilton Kramer, who had been the literary editor of The New Leader for which I wrote many reviews); and Jonathan Williams’ hilarious send up of Rod McKuen and Lois Wyse, two poetasters who played on an ersatz harp and sold copies of their poems in the hundreds of thousands (Jonathan was a friend of mine, whose prose was wickedly sardonic.). What a cinch, I thought to myself. Then reality crashed in through the skylight. I got a batch of reviews that were intelligent and peevish and pedestrian, but not exactly crackling with wit. Still, for a debut, it was a respectable performance. The response was mostly favorable, but Peter Klappert, who had been drubbed in a first-books chronicle, wrote a review called “The Sheriff Who Reads Poetry.” In 1973, that evoked Bull Connor, the notorious redneck police chief in Alabama who ordered his men to beat up Civil Rights protestors. I didn’t fancy being called a sadistic bully. My picture was not hung up in the cafes and classrooms where poets gossiped about the poetry scene, but to this day, some disgruntled bards think that if their books get trashed or even mildly criticized in Parnassus, I must have put a contract out on them, like a mafia don. (Twice because I turned down pieces I thought sloppily done and requested revisions, the writers accused me of being an overseer on a plantation. Needless to say, I didn’t turn the other cheek to that calumny.) The truth is, I sometimes disagree strongly with a reviewer’s assessment, but so long as the analysis is not viciously ad hominem, or a rhapsodical coronation of a friend’s poems, and the prose is sturdy, I’ll publish it. I’m not in the censorship business.

Poets did not know who I was, but their radar told them to be suspicious that Parnassus might be a dangerous missile-off course, naturally-that could blow up their reputation. I was considered a parvenu, an unknown mercenary. I remember especially a Christmas party I gave to thank the poets and critics who had written for the magazine. Several poets came just to check me out (they liked the food and wine I served). I met my wife at one of those parties, as you know.

Through the first six issues I did not have to worry about raising the money. But Stan soon ran out of cash. He couldn’t support his small press and Parnassus and run the bookshop. So with the help of a lawyer-friend, I set up a non-profit foundation and took on the duties of publisher as well as editor. The character in myth I most sympathize with is poor Atlas bearing a burden that stoops his body. (Admittedly, he was not swift of mind; otherwise when Hercules took over for a brief period of respite, Atlas would have run to the other end of the earth and let the strongman be the responsible he-man). My friends will tell you that I was born without an entrepreneurial bone in my body, but mirabile dictu, we’ve survived on a diet of luck, grants, subscriptions, donations, and the generosity of patrons and friends and subscribers who love the magazine and won’t let it fold.

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?

There 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).

From our first issue we wanted to offer an attractive alternative to this slash-and-burn short review or its alter ego, the feathery praise of a friend’s or mentor’s book. Which raises my second point: Parnassus coincided with a period in which most poets didn’t feel any urge to write reviews (yes, I’m familiar with The University of Michigan Press Series of Poets on Poetry, but often the collections seem to be ephemeral as fluff, lacking in intellectual sinew and prose that lodges in the brain and gives pleasure). We published an anthology in the Michigan Series called Parnassus: Twenty Years of Poetry in Review. Some of our golden oldies were on exhibit under one roof. If you look at the first paragraphs of pieces by Guy Davenport, Diane Ackerman, Seamus Heaney, Ross Feld, and Adrienne Rich (like her groundbreaking essay on Emily Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home”), you can see how remarkable and varied the styles of the reviewers are. The reader is immediately drawn into the web of explanation by these Scheherezades of both sexes; you hang on each word that the genial or polemical reviewer-guide spins. “You can be intellectually acute and entertaining,” I tell reviewers, especially young ones who have to shed the pernicious influence of the academic jargon they’ve picked up in college and universities.

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?

I’m aware, of how hurtful a negative review can be. And how a review can be stupid, riddled with misreadings. A review my book Fabricating Lives received in The New Republic fourteen years ago still rankles when I think of it. The reviewer didn’t know what to make of my emphasis on the centrality of style in autobiographies as a revelation of character traits, so he never once mentioned the word “style,” even to refute its importance. He pompously attacked me for a lack of psychological observation, though one chapter was titled “Stoking the Oedipal Furnace.” Obviously an editor has to be on the alert for such obtuseness, and for ad hominem or ad feminem attacks that are scurrilous or resemble ex cathedra beheadings without benefit of counsel or due process. But to dilute judgments or to coo about a middling book is a kind of intellectual cowardice and is sure to confect what Elizabeth Hardwick, a tough-minded reviewer, once memorably called “a puddle of treacle.” I suppose some poets are timid of saying in print what they may say in a cafe over a cappuccino, lest the assailed poet retaliate by disparaging their work. If so, that is not healthy for poetry.

I was once asked if I knew how devastated Muriel Rukeyser was after Randall Jarrell panned a book of her poems. I said I hadn’t known that, but I defended Jarrell’s review because his assessment quoted and analyzed poems he thought went off the rails or failed owing to formal weaknesses. If he was wrong-and no reviewer is infallible-Rukeyser or another poet could have entered a rebuttal. Should Jarrell have censored or muffled his point of view? No with Thunder (to steal from Melville). Curiously, Parnassus’ reputation is based on the perception that the magazine can be counted on for fearless opinions carefully argued in droll and rapier-like prose. If a poet who has swept all the prizes, who has cornered the laurel leaves market, publishes a translation of Dante that is poorly done, an intelligent reviewer worth his salt should point out this shoddy work. The alternative is mendacity or sycophancy. Too many editors of books of poetry these days fail to challenge the poets they publish for lapses in grammar, for banality-repeating the adjective “dark” dozens of times, for example-for writing with a tin ear or to a metronome, for trivial content, and assorted other sins. The poet and editor should engage in a dialogue about the poems, just as a reviewer does with the book under review.

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?”

“Does reviewing matter?” That could be construed as inflammatory, but it goes
to the heart of the matter and the perilous state of American literary culture today. I have no glib answers, but I won’t dodge your bullet by politely suggesting that the indifferent or naive poets or indolent editors bone up on 28 years of Parnassus. The recent NEA report that there’s been a steep decline (especially among the 18-34 age group) in the number of readers of good literature, is alarming, but it’s a “chronicle of stale beer.” English majors who graduate from Ivy League and other prestigious universities seldom buy a literary novel or book of poems. They trade in their Collected Yeats on E-Bay for the “Kill Bill” and “Pulp Fiction” DVDs. (Some apartments I’ve seen lack even one bookshelf.). The general fund of knowledge among M.F.A. students is probably very low; the poetry cadets can’t identify Sir Thomas Wyatt or Weldon Kees, haven’t read Crashaw or John Clare, Tennyson or Longfellow, Szymborska or Miroslav Holub or Akhmatova. So there’s a San Andreas Fault in writers’ minds that somehow composing a novel or a sestina is not connected to reading the work of earlier poets. A profound and limiting error! There’s no anxiety of influence because influence rarely comes into play. So one valuable service Parnassus provides is to scan the world and write about verse from all parts of the globe or to take a new look at masters like Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, The Earl of Rochester, and Anna Akhmatova.

I was leafing through Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet the other day and to my dismay came across a passage in which he counseled the candidates for the Muses’ holy orders to avoid the quagmire of poetry criticism (my language). This was bum (and snobbish) advice, as though poets should never get their hands dirty by stooping to manual labor, cleaning out the sty of lousy poems. Reviewing a biography of Alexander Pope, for example, would give a young poet a marvelous opportunity to study a dazzling prosodist. She might not ever write one heroic couplet, but she would internalize virtuoso techniques. Or closer to our age, how does Sylvia Plath achieve her brilliant effects in Ariel? If they were merely examples of pathology, why should we care about the poems, which can often be wiser than the poet? So a review can be extremely helpful by pointing out why line breaks are arbitrary or satisfying, how patterns of syntax that avoid uniformity make for a more animated poem, why a steady drumbeat of fragments and short sentences is rhythmically boring and destroys the possibility of complexity. Or why a young poet’s sonnet about losing her virginity in the back of a Mustang in rural Missouri is of no interest unless the imagination transforms it into something strange and marvelous, sensuous and cerebral at the same time. A canny reviewer can spot shortcomings a poet may have overlooked: too many lines beginning with prepositions, say, or too many stanzas that lack any form or even a remote relationship between line length and meaning (line 10 may snake its way across the page to the right edge, to be followed by one or two words on line 11, whose prominence cannot be justified by any criteria). A sharp review can expose an excess of hackneyed adjectives, maudlin or wobbly tone, meager vocabulary, mixed metaphors, impoverished subject matter. And so on.

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.

I suppose that Parnassus is an anachronism. I can understand why academic critics shun the magazine, but it’s silly to dismiss what we do as old-fashioned. Over the years, I’ve been comforted by the fact that Octavio Paz and James Laughlin and Helen Vendler, Susan Sontag and Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Hardwick have all praised the magazine. I’m not reconciled, however, to the sad reality that the vast majority of poets don’t read the magazine, even though our reviewers often command a scintillating style and purvey sheer pleasure, even magic, along with enlightening commentary. Eric Ormsby’s essay on classic Arabic poetry in our 25th Anniversary issue is a model, a marvel, of lucid and poetic and erudite prose. Had Plato read it, perhaps he would not have banished poets from his Republic. Our essays are worth re-reading and our beat is not confined to twenty city blocks.[/private]

About Christopher Bakken

Christopher Bakken iGoat Funeral (recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters' prize for the best book of poetry in 2006) and After Greece (which won the 2001 T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry). He is also the co-translator of The Lion's Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Raritan, Gettysburg Review, Literary Imagination, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
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