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The Power and Pettiness of Poets:
Poetry Magazine's Very Human Century

Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters
Edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young (Norton, 2002)
Dear Editor:
The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002
Edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young (Ivan R. Dee, 2002)


As an undergraduate, I studied with a professor who always emphasized the integral role of Harriet Monroe's Poetry 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, Williams, Pound, Frost, Moore, and Millay shared real estate with lesser figures like Sandburg, Lindsay, Masters, and Kilmer. 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 ego.

The Letters

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:

March 1918.

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, Williams—new generations stepped out from their shadows—confessionalists, 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 Shapiro, 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).

The Poets

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, Yeats, H. D., 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 Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Stein, John Berryman, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, Anne Sexton, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, and Yusef Komunyakaa alongside the (purportedly) safer voices of Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, and Carl Dennis.

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?






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