Thomas Fink: Those who know you as Letters Editor of The New York Times for the last 18 years may not be aware of your early interest in poetry. When you and I were together in high school and college (for six years), both of us were reading a significant amount of poetry. I believe, also, that you wrote poetry up to your freshman or sophomore year of college. I remember your being drawn to T.S. Eliot, maybe early Ezra Pound, then Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a few courses with scholars like Richard Ludwig introduced you to quite a few others. But tell me which poets were most important to you, and please explain what it was about their use of language, rhythms, subject matter, and anything else that you found especially compelling.
Thomas Feyer: Walt Whitman was and is my favorite poet. He broke free of the staid traditions of American poetry – with his rollicking free verse, his exuberance, his ambition, his broad, inclusive depiction of the American experience, his sensuality, his deep humanity and universality. And of course his influence on poets who followed: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, the other Beats. And, yes, I’m also drawn to Eliot and Pound’s modernist poetry, though I’m repelled by their anti-Semitism, and, in Pound’s case, fascism.
Fink: You compare your process as Letters Editor to “building a ship in a bottle: It’s a very tight space, and we have to make it fit to the line” (Qtd in Steve Hiltner, Times Insider, Mar. 28, 2017). Your advice to those hoping to better their chances of selection is: “Timeliness is a must; brevity will improve your chances; stylishness and wit will win my heart” (“To the Reader,” Opinion Page, New York Times, Sept. 14, 2003). Indeed, a maximum of 150 words is the recommendation. Whitman is the master of expansion, as his contemporary Dickinson is the queen of concision. “Rollicking free verse” is not going to work for a Times letter—and surely, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti follow Whitman in that regard—and “exuberance” may have to be channeled differently, but is there anything in Whitman’s (Wit-man’s) “stylishness and wit” and/or subject matter and/or ambition that corresponds in some way to a letter “fit to print” in The Times? Or are the two textual realms simply incommensurable?
Feyer: Remember that Whitman the poet was Whitman the newspaperman first. He did write letters, including to the editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, and conventional prose and poetry (“O Captain! My Captain!”). His expansiveness was a hallmark of “Leaves of Grass,” but even there and in other poems there were powerful, compressed passages that would have worked in the tight space of a modern letter to the editor, which tends to be much shorter than 19th-century letters to the editor were. His genius was protean; he could shift gears with ease: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) (Leaves of Grass, Norton, 1965, 88).
Fink: Yes, that’s very true. “Song of Myself,” for example, often contains compression within expansion, as in the catalog of the long section 31. For example: “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs” (Leaves of Grass, 66) Rhythms based on reiteration are essential to the rhetorical effect; if you try to cut out words from that poem to “help” Whitman revise, it eviscerates the area from which you’re cutting.
What do you think Whitman learned from journalism that he was able to apply to his best poetry?
Feyer: I believe that Whitman worked hard at newspapering, and he obviously understood the power of the written word. But in his poetry he raised his game; he knew that a poem’s charged language worked best for what he was trying to convey.
Fink: In a moving article, after narrating your family’s perilous exit from your native Hungary in 1956, emigration to the U.S., and the family’s challenges and triumphs here, you address this country to thank it, and add, “I try in my work to repay you — to contribute to society by promoting a free and robust exchange of ideas, so crucial in our democracy” (“A grateful Immigrant,” Huff Post Blog, July 11, 2016). I suspect that part of your deep appreciation of Whitman stems, not only from what you referred to before as his broad inclusiveness, but from his egalitarian, communitarian representation of a future U.S. in “Democratic Vistas” that’s also a prominent feature in the poetry.
However, in The Imperial Self (Knopf, 1971), Quentin Anderson contends that Whitman’s ambition in Leaves of Grass is to incorporate other people and the world itself into the ego’s territory. In section 20 of “Song of Myself,” Whitman—if we do not distinguish, as we usually do, between the speaker and poet—provides evidence for this by claiming that “the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow to him” (Leaves of Grass, 47), by calling himself “deathless” and “august,” and by naming himself the “world” that “is… by far the largest” to him (48).
OK, Whitman “contains multitudes” and “contradictions,” as you said, but how do you reconcile the democratic, communitarian strain and the egocentric assertions or how do you contextualize them together? If you received a letter with excellent, concise reasoning from an egalitarian perspective about a particular issue in the news that nevertheless trumpets the writer’s sense of self-importance, you might think twice about publishing it.
Feyer: I don’t necessarily see a conflict between Whitman the egalitarian and Whitman the supreme egotist. I think that he genuinely believed in the greatness of ordinary Americans of all stations and occupations, and that he saw himself as their champion and prophet. Sure, he was full of himself, but he felt he embodied a growing, self-confident America. In somewhat the same way, I wouldn’t hold the self-importance of a letter writer against him or her as long as the content of the letter was worthwhile. Many self-important people have important things to say. I should add that publishing a letter in The Times is not necessarily an endorsement of its viewpoint, only a statement that I believe that it serves the reader in some way – whether the writer is a newsmaker, an expert or an ordinary reader with something intelligent, perceptive or witty to say.
Fink: What have you found especially “intelligent, perceptive, [and] witty” in the “charged language” of Eliot and Pound’s modernist poetry?
Feyer: The examples abound throughout Eliot and Pound. To take just a few of many, let’s admire the power and precision in Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool. (The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 , Harcourt, Brace and World, 1971, 7).
. . . or the economy of the 14 words in Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. (Selected Poems, New Directions, 1957, 35)
. . . or the device of Pound’s addressing Whitman in “A Pact”:
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman –
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root –
Let there be commerce between us. (Selected Poems, 27)
Fink: Excellence in journalism, letters to a newspaper, and poetry each “contain multitudes” and can’t be reduced to a single formula. But I suspect that there can be “commerce between” these realms. What might practitioners of journalism and letter-writing to the Times learn from poetry that can help them in their craft, and what might poets learn from journalistic practice and Times letters?
Feyer: I definitely agree that there can be “commerce between” journalism, letters to the editor and poetry. What they have in common is the power of the written (and often spoken) word. While the disciplines vary, good journalists, letter writers and poets ideally chisel every word, making each one essential and purposeful. “That every word tell” (“The Elements of Style,” Strunk and White.) That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, this is where editors (my profession) come in. We pare away the fat, the obscure and the wordy, so that the meaning comes through more clearly. (Of course, in poetry obscurity and difficulty may serve a purpose as well – less so in prose.)