As an undergraduate, I studied with a professor who always emphasized
the integral role of Harriet
in the emergence of American modernism. For Dr.
Guillory, the Chicago Renaissance and Monroe's small magazine were
as important as any of the other forces that formed the poetic landscape
on which Eliot, Stevens,
Pound, Frost, Moore,
and Millay shared real estate with lesser figures like Sandburg,
Though a transplanted Illinoisian, my mentor exuded a kind of native,
geographical pride that this upstart magazine remained and thrived in
Chicago long after The Dial and The Little Review moved
their publications to New York (and ultimately folded).
Eventually, I made my way to the library to see what Poetry
was all about. I discovered a terribly thin journal, printed in
the least graphically interesting way I could imagine, with a handful
of last names arranged alphabetically on the cover. I was unimpressed,
until I opened up the back issues and began to read. The diffuse and
compelling poetic conversation that unfolded in those pages pulled me
in. I wanted to join. Years later, as my rejection letters from the
magazine have accumulated, I find myself repeating what I heard from
Dr. Guillory, insisting to my students that, without Harriet Monroe
and her magazine, we would be telling a very different story about American
literature in the twentieth century.
Dear Editor and The Poetry Anthology go a long
way towards confirming the magazine's historic importance. Compiled
by Poetry's current editor-in-chief, Joseph Parisi, and its current
senior editor, Stephen Young, these volumes avoid the danger of offering
a simple hagiography of the journal. Instead, they give a complex and
comprehensive look at the magazine's influence during the last century
and reinforce two facts worth remembering about American poetry: the
output of even the greatest writers is wildly uneven, and the political
wrangling of those same poets is contentious, funny, tragic, and constant.
In short, poetry and Poetry are terrifically human endeavors,
prone to both the positive, benevolent graces of power and to all the
pettiness of any activity that combines artistic hope with artistic
While these books will likely play an important scholarly function
for many readers, they are also interestingly read by anyone who merely
dips into them with literary curiosity. As the books are arranged chronologically,
such judicious dipping can result in a rather fragmented and rich sense
of how various poets developed their voices and how those voices found
their way into (and out of) Poetry's pages. Dear Editor makes
for the most fascinating reading in this regard.
The letters span the first 50 years of the publication, including
Monroe's tenure and her six successors, up to 1962. Clearly, though,
the dominant presence in this collection is Monroe herself. Her resourcefulness
in keeping the magazine afloat and her tactful handling of needy poets
appear on nearly every page. When Edna
St. Vincent Millay writes to Poetry, she's not only charming,
she's also asking for cash:
Dear Harriet Monroe,
Spring is here and I could be very happy, except
that I am broke. Would you mind paying me now instead of upon publication
for those so stunning verses of mine which you have? I am become
very, very thin, and have taken to smoking Virginia tobacco. Wistfully
yours, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In such cases, Monroe responded with unfailing grace. In fact,
her kindnesses to many writers may have been her Achilles heel. She
championed poets such as Lindsay and Masters years after their work
continued to be sharp. And she mollified numerous cranky poets, both
great and small, when they wrote to complain.
By far the two crankiest poets Monroe had to handle were Ezra
Pound and Amy
Lowell. In the magazine's earliest years, Pound served as Monroe's
foreign talent scout, introducing American audiences to the work of
the young expatriate T.
S. Eliot (a little piece
about a guy troubled by some overwhelming question) and offering his
terse judgments of others. Over time, Monroe became more adept at deflecting
Pound's grumpiness, and Pound became increasingly critical of Monroe's
editorial choices and more and more bitter about his own waning influence
over the magazine.
No one raised Pound's ire like Lowell, a notorious self-promoter.
She kept finding room on Poetry's pages, space that Pound thought
someone else should have. In 1915, Pound lost patience with Lowell's
appropriation of his "Imagism" telling Monroe: "A. L. Comes over here,
gets kudos out of associations. She returns and wants to weaken the
whole use of the term imagist, by making it mean ANY writing of vers
libre." At least these gripes were, in part, about the poetry.
Before long the feud turned personal, with Lowell at one point
appealing to Monroe in a telegram. Lowell asserts her ongoing loyalty
to the magazine despite that fact that "NO PLEASANT ENCOURAGING WORD
ABOUT ME HAS EVER BEEN PRINTED IN ITS PAGES . . . MUST SAY I AM DISTINCTLY
HURT ABOUT THIS. YOU ARE ALWAYS WRITING AND HELPING EZRA."
Monroe soothed her poets, somewhat, but not without losing Pound's
eventual help as overseas correspondent.
Over ten years later, the indignation and self-centeredness continued.
When she received a prestigious prize from the magazine, Lowell thanks
Monroe and then moans, "On the whole, I am not greatly impressed with
the younger generation. I think we did better--don't you?" Pound, upon
hearing of the prize snipes at both Lowell and Monroe: "The award to
Amy was an infamy. . . My Dear Harriet you are showing a liking for
the chewed and the second rate." (Notably, none of Lowell's poetry appears
in The Poetry Anthology.)
Pound's and Lowell's exchanges with Monroe read like early versions
of the email flames and skirmishes on today's poetry web boards, a good
reminder that while technology changes, the neediness and narcissism
of poets do not. Go to nearly any poetry critique web site and you'll
see that such exchanges generate far more hits (and heat) than any of
the actual poems. Perhaps moderators should save these for future scholars
of poetry's politics. Probably not.
Not as much fun as the gossip (but probably more important),
Dear Editor also gives insight into the way an upstart magazine
becomes an institution and then must struggle to sustain itself. After
Monroe's death in 1936, the magazine's editorship changes through various
hands. All the while, important and diverse poets continue to appear
in its pages, most of them believing Poetry will make their careers.
These writers sometimes attributed to Poetry near cosmic power.
After reading a review of her collection, Annie Allen, Gwendolyn
Brooks writes to thank the staff, and includes this worry: "Something
horrible must be about to befall me, because I have been so fortunate
in the recent past."
The relative editorial flux following Monroe's death coincided
with newly emerging and competing poetic trends. As the modernist giants
continued to publish in Poetry Stevens, Eliot, Auden,
Williamsnew generations stepped out from their shadowsconfessionalists,
the Beats, the Black
Mountain poets, among others. The work of sifting through these
newer poetic voices was difficult, sometimes. In a letter to Karl
Randall Jarrell compliments the editor with: "You don't act like
an editor at all." It's also clear that during this era, the editorial
staff had to spend much energy on financial matters, and at this point,
some of the personality and energy of the volume seep away. Still, reading
these letters opens us to a version of poetry's real territory: the
minds and lives and ambitions of particular poets attempting to get
themselves heard (and paid).
In his introduction to The Poetry Anthology, Parisi acknowledges
that "Of course, the great bulk of creative work is middling or worse,
whatever the medium or age, and doesn't survive its period of production."
The 600 poems that follow constitute both ample proof and sufficient
refutation of Parisi's claim.
Culled from the over 29,000 poems published over 90 years, these
works vary so much that it's difficult to imagine how they all appeared
between the same plain and revered covers. On facing pages sit Ezra
Pound's minimalist, imagist manifesto, "In
A Station of the Metro," and Joyce Kilmer's "Trees"
(according to Parisi, Kilmer's poem still remains the most popular ever
printed in the journal). Separated by 36 pages are Vachel
Lindsay's brilliant and bombastic "General
William Booth Enters into Heaven" and his tepid "The Horrid Voice
of Science." Both contrasts show the unevenness of the collective and
individual endeavors of poets, along with the effects of historical
distance on editorial judgment and taste. And it's to Parisi's and Young's
credit that they include such a range of work.
Better than finding inconsistencies, though, is finding surprises,
minor names and little known poems tucked in between the Eliot, Frost,
Millay, Pound, Williams, and Stevens. Sara
Teasdale's "The Answer," for instance, still rings with a fresh
lyric voice, beginning:
When I go back to earth
And all my joyous body
Puts off the red and white
That once had been so proud,
If men should pass above
With false and feeble pity,
My dust will find a voice
To answer them aloud.
Poetry has earned a recent reputation for being conservative
in its editorial choices, so it's good to be reminded that they have
published the innovative work of
Rich, Gertrude Stein,
Creeley, Anne Sexton,
Amiri Baraka, John
Olds, and Yusef
Komunyakaa alongside the (purportedly) safer voices of Richard
Wilbur, Billy Collins,
It's also good to be reminded that, while important, Poetry's
history and fortunes constitute only one piece of the story of twentieth-century
American verse. While I still agree with my teacher's estimation of
the magazine's integral role 90 years ago, integral does not equal synonymous.
The most lasting lessons we can learn from these two books are about
the humanity and fallibility of even the most noble artistic enterprises.
Only a few writers, to paraphrase Teasdale, will be made of the kind
of dust that finds a lasting voice (and they will require Monroe-like
nurturing). And even then, the very best and worst poets will write
mediocre lines, then grouse and grovel for fame and payment. Why would
we expect it to be otherwise?