Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

To a literal-minded reader, “Lust for Life,” a poem Michael Robbins published last April in The New Yorker, would have

To a literal-minded reader, “Lust for Life,” a poem Michael Robbins published last April in The New Yorker, would have raised a few questions. Are elephants ever cannibals? Has the poet ever operated a meth lab? Did that meth lab often explode? Is Mr. Robbins really often compared to Britney Spears? Has John Milton ever jumped out of his birthday cake? Does he really think everyone in Sweden is an idiot? For the magazine’s fact-checkers, perhaps the city’s foremost partisans of the literal, the issue was, Who invented refrigeration?

“The idiot Swedes do a number on me/ They invent refrigeration and sleep in shifts,” ran the offending lines.

“This magazine,” New Yorker poetry editor Peter DeVries wrote poet Richard Wilbur in 1948, “is notoriously fastidious about points of fact. And we feel the same way about poetry, rightly or wrongly.”

DeVries was asking Mr. Wilbur, who still publishes in the magazine, to change a line at the behest of a fact-checker. The poet refused, and so his poem, the first of his the magazine had warmed to, was refused. Last spring, Mr. Robbins was luckier.

“If it’s important to you to know that the fridge, strictly speaking, was not invented in Sweden,” Paul Muldoon, the magazine’s current poetry editor, said, “then here we have one piece of information. If by the line ‘the Swedes invented the fridge’ you mean that storage of spoilable food in a cold climate might be said as invented in the frigid climate of Sweden, then that’s also fine. It is and is not a fact.”

“The fact-checkers are very diligent,” Mr. Robbins told The Observer. “They don’t make a distinction between the poetic and the actual. They don’t allow for, at least in theory, the dimension of fictionality that a poem can cultivate.” When your verse arrives at 4 Times Square, in other words, your poetic license is revoked.

In the end, The New Yorker printed the dubious lines. “The reason we left that one is because the whole quality is absurdist,” said Peter Canby, head of The New Yorker‘s fact-checking department. “There’s a suggestion that the narrator is a meth user with scattered thoughts, which is one reason why a narrator would get a fact wrong.” Indeed, meth addicts are famous for inciting editors’ retractions. (In real life, Mr. Robbins’ sole vice is tobacco.)

Poetry may be said to have begotten New Yorker fact-checking–or at least a poet was involved. According to Ben Yagoda’s history of the magazine, About Town, the fact-checking department was established in 1927 after “a profile of Edna St. Vincent Millay was so riddled with errors that the poet’s mother stormed into the magazine’s offices and threatened to sue if an extensive correction was not run. (The magazine ultimately printed her lengthy letter under the heading ‘We Stand Corrected.’)”

“What with our making fun of the mistakes in other publications and what with the nature of the magazine,” wrote New Yorker founder Harold Ross in a memo to publisher Raoul Fleischmann after the incident, “A SPECIAL EFFORT SHOULD BE MADE TO AVOID MISTAKES IN THE NEW YORKER.”

But just as the idiot Swedes did not invent refrigeration, The New Yorker did not invent fact-checking. Time, run by Ross’ arch rival Henry Luce, had an all-female squadron of checkers in place at its founding in 1924.

Clashes between New Yorker poets and facts have been constant. “The checking department says it should be ‘strait’ not straits,'” Katharine S. White wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in 1945, about the first line of “Large Bad Picture.” “But if you prefer the sound of the latter I don’t think we need to be too literal.” Bishop, we learn in the new volume of correspondence between the poet and The New Yorker, yielded to most editorial requests, and this time was no different.

“It’s good to have a standard,” said Alice Quinn, formerly the poetry editor at The New Yorker and the caretaker of the Bishop legacy. “Accuracy was one of the three qualities Bishop strove for: accuracy, mystery and spontaneity.”

It was copy editors, though, who made their mark on Bishop’s most famous poem, changing a colon to a semi-colon in Bishop’s “One Art” (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;”), a subtle change that relaxes the statement rather than making it a declaration. In general, grammatical mistakes–whether intentional or accidental–are tolerated far less than unfounded facts.

On the Wikipedia “Fact checker” page–a source beneath the magazine’s standards without further citation–a list of “Prominent former fact checkers” includes many alumni of The New Yorker‘s checking department–current staff writers Ben McGrath and Nancy Franklin; novelists William Gaddis and Jay McInerney; author and former Random House editor in chief Daniel Menaker. No poets appear on the list–which, The Observer confirmed, “was itself created by some New Yorker fact-checkers with a little too much time on their hands,” according to a former staffer.

Today 16 full-time checkers await their rise to prominence. Mr. Canby, now a senior editor, who spent several years away from the magazine as a freelance writer, first joined the department in 1978, during William Shawn’s editorship.

Of recent conundrums, Mr. Canby recalled a vexing poem by Philip Schultz, “At the Manhattan Social Security Office,” published last October. The narrator is reading The New York Review of Books. Initially, Mr. Schultz included the phrase, “Afghanistan, what could be done,” as a kind of scattered thought. The checkers caught the reference to a NYRB article headlined, “Afghanistan: What Could Work.” Complicating matters, The New Yorker was planning on running a profile of the article’s author, Rory Stewart, the following week. The fact-checkers pushed to include the proper title of the article, and Mr. Schultz ceded the line.

“The thing we do with poems and fiction is, we try to hold up a mirror of what we think is this journalistic, factual world to the work,” Mr. Canby said. “We make the connections between the two worlds deliberate rather than accidental. We don’t force the factual world onto the aesthetic construction of fiction, but we make the connections deliberate and intentional.”

“The idea of poets and fact being opposed is romantic with a lower cased ‘r,'” said Benjamin Lytal, Ms. Quinn’s former assistant. He said that he used to mediate between the poet and the fact-checker, using a printed sheet of the checker’s notes. (Mr. Lytal referred to these notes as “beautiful, instant annotation.” The checker, he said, did not just note inaccuracies, but included further explanations of all points of fact in the poem.) “My experience is that poets are really curious to hear that the facts of the poem are being tested.”

“The poet reserves the right to put ‘stet’ in the margin,” said Ms. Quinn (a condition that did not apply for Mr. Wilbur in 1948). She said The New Yorker has never run a correction about a poem, though she remembers printing the incorrect title for a poem by Richard Howard, “On a Friend’s Contemplating a Biography of Hawthorne.” “Contemplating” usurped the correct “Completing” in the proofing stage, and not even Mr. Howard noticed it until the issue was printed.

“It’s just a detail,” Mr. Howard said, “and not important enough to bother running a correction in a magazine like that where everybody would have forgotten about it the next week. I don’t feel we should slap The New Yorker‘s wrist over something like that. I’m much too happy to appear in The New Yorker. It’s one of the few places where everybody sees someone’s work.”

For Mr. Howard, apparently, even proofing errors can be redeemed by poetic license.

mmiller@observer.com Whose Line Is It, Anyway?