Source : The New York Times – Grace Schulman
Ms. Schulman was poetry editor at The Nation from 1971 to 2006.
I was the magazine’s poetry editor for 35 years. Never once did we apologize for publishing a poem.
During the 35 years that I edited poetry for The Nation magazine, we published the likes of W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, May Swenson, Denise Levertov, James Merrill and Derek Walcott. They wrote on subjects as varied as lesbian passion and nuclear threats. Some poems, and some critical views, enraged our readers and drove them to drop their subscriptions.
But never did we apologize for a poem we published. We saw it as part of our job to provoke our readers — a mission we took especially seriously in serving the magazine’s absolute devotion to a free press.
We followed a path blazed by Henry James, who in 1865 wrote a damning review of Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” calling the great poem “arrant prose.” Mistaken, yes, but it was James’s view at the time. And it was never retracted.
Apparently the magazine has abandoned this storied tradition.
Last month, the magazine published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee. The poet is white. His poem, “How-To,” draws on black vernacular.
Following a vicious backlash against the poem on social media, the poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, apologized for publishing it in the first place: “We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem ‘How-To.’ We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” they wrote in an apology longer than the actual poem. The poet apologized, too, saying, “I am sorry for the pain I caused.”
I was deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.
In my years at The Nation, I was inspired by the practical workings of a free press. We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” And no one was a greater defender of press freedom and of writers’ right to be wrong than Victor Navasky, who succeeded Blair Clark as editor in chief in 1978.
One defense in the late 1980s risked losing Discovery/The Nation, an annual contest in which the poets who won the prize read their work at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and simultaneously had it published in the magazine. The Y’s board, which sponsored the contest, suggested dropping The Nation’s participation after it published an article by Gore Vidal that some people deemed anti-Semitic.
I remember Mr. Vidal’s piece. I detested it and his views. But I’d learned by then the crucial importance of a free press to a democracy.
I asked for Mr. Navasky’s help in saving the contest. And no, he would never have rebuked the offensive article and apologized.
Instead, he wrote a letter to the board of the Y explaining The Nation’s way. He said, in effect, that when we invite a writer to contribute to the magazine, our aim is to help that person articulate his or her own view as clearly as possible. As I recall, the copy editors went to town on factual and grammatical errors, but left what Jefferson called errors of opinion.
Mr. Navasky’s defense of Mr. Vidal’s piece did not at all reflect indifference to the poetry contest. On the contrary, he cared for it, speedily sent over the magazines that contained the winners’ poems and often came to the readings. But his position on free speech was uncompromising.
How far we have come from those idealistic, courageous days. As Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, put it, the magazine’s apology for Mr. Carlson-Wee’s work was “craven” and “looks like a letter from re-education camp.” She also rightly suggested that the proper thing to do would have been to publish a page of responses. That would have been in keeping with the expectations of a free press.
The broader issue here, though, is the backward and increasingly prevalent idea that the artist is somehow morally responsible for his character’s behavior or voice. Writers have always presented characters with unwholesome views; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare come immediately to mind. One wonders if editors would have the courage to publish Robert Lowell’s “Words for Hart Crane” or Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” today.
It would not be proper for me to comment on the aesthetic merits of Mr. Carlson-Wee’s piece. That’s the job of the magazine’s current poetry editors. But going forward, I’d recommend they follow Henry James’s example. Just as he never apologized for his negative review of Whitman, they had zero reason to regret their decision.
Grace Schulman was poetry editor at The Nation from 1971-2006. She is the author of seven books of poetry and the recipient of the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in American poetry. Her memoir, “Strange Paradise,” comes out this month.