Fiona McCrae On The Afterlife Of Poems, Part Two
Every quarter the staff likes to get a report on the permissions activity for the period. It’s fascinating to look at the poems and poets that are most in demand: Tony Hoagland, Dana Gioia, Natasha Tretheway, Linda Gregg, Eamon Grennan, Claudia Rankine, Nick Flynn, Katie Ford. If I had to come up with one quality that unites the most requested poems, it’s clarity. When we are selecting our poets, clarity is not a quality that we have in the front of our minds. Instead, I think we are looking at originality, complexity, innovation. Perhaps some of our more opaque poets need to read in the context of their other poems: the collection as a whole teaches the reader how to fully understand the work. Or perhaps they need more time to filter into the wider cultural currents.
At the top of our permissions list are the poems of William Stafford and Jane Kenyon. And when people phone me to ask for a poem to read at a ceremonial event (and even when I am wanting one for an occasion) it is often to these poets I turn. It’s not necessarily that they are my favorite poets; it’s that they seem the most share-able. Their work has a quality of inclusiveness that Dana Gioia has described in his essay about Elizabeth Bishop (“Elizabeth Bishop: From Coterie to Canon," from Disappearing Ink). He talks about Bishop’s appeal to a wide spectrum of tastes, and he notes how many of her poems contain the word we. I immediately thought of Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” and Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come,” which are our most requested poems. Both include the reader in lines at the end of their poems. Stafford with, “I thought hard for us all” and Kenyon with, “God does not leave us / Comfortless…” In these two gestures, each poet, one could argue, significantly increased the audience for their poems.