Everybody knows that a finished piece of writing rarely springs, fully formed, from the author’s mind. But how does it get from there to here? The cover of this week’s Book Review features the marked-up draft of a poem by Eduardo C. Corral — one of a series of such annotated manuscripts, from six different poets, that anchor a special poetry-themed issue. I love seeing drafts for the same reason I love seeing artists’ sketches: because they show the mind at play, solving creative problems, and they illuminate the sometimes painstaking process behind the finished piece. They let us eavesdrop on a kind of dialogue or argument between the writer and the work itself. I have long been on the lookout for an opportunity to bring in-the-works drafts into the Book Review, and the poetry issue offered a perfect fit.
I’m a journalist, not a poet. But I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of poetry at least since I discovered Robert Hass’s collection “Field Guide” at my local library when I was 13, and my interest has only expanded since I began assigning reviews of poetry for The New York Times a decade ago. (I also assign for fiction and a grab-bag of other books.) I bring my own tastes to this job, of course, but the job inevitably pushes back: Readers, like writers, are in constant dialogue and argument with the work.
Poetry can be daunting — to all of us. The poetry world is vast and lively and diverse, not only in demographic terms (although that too) but also in its methods and its aims. No one publication could hope to cover it all; even a single-interest publication like the excellent Poetry magazine has its blind spots.
So at the Book Review, where we cover so much else besides, I see our role as giving the lay of the land: identifying new voices and trends, checking in with old favorites, keeping up with the scholarship and tracing the continuing relevance of past masters. With an average of two dozen poetry reviews a year (give or take), that’s a tall order, made taller because we’re speaking both to readers who are already familiar with poetry and to readers who might still be looking for the right nudge. But the proof of their interest is on the best-seller lists, where in recent years collections by Claudia Rankine, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and Rupi Kaur have all made appearances.