The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
What with print edition magazines falling like autumn leaves (Newsweek is just the latest), it’s a minor miracle that one bright green leaf will never fall to earth for the foreseeable future. PoetryMagazine is that miracle, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world. Miraculous is the only way to describe that day in 2002 when a lawyer informed Poetry’s editor that Ruth Lilly, 94, heiress to the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company, had just willed a staggering $100 million to the little Chicago-based magazine that had so long clung by its financial fingernails. Its four employees were thunder-struck!
Poetry was founded in 1912 by a remarkable woman, Harriet Monroe of Chicago, an aesthete who patronized the arts and wrote poetry.
Oh, what is the use of a poet, say,
If he will not sing me a song to-day?
As Poetry’s first editor, Harriet adopted a progressive policy that welcomed unknown poets no matter their style or content. “We shall read with special interest poems of modern significance, but the most classic subject will not be declined if it reaches a high standard of quality. Open Door will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors . . . desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” Today, the magazine receives over 90,000 submissions per year worldwide.
Unknown poets first published by Poetry included:
Ezra Pound: “As cool as the pale wet leaves of lily-of–the-valley, She lay beside me in the dawn.”
T.S Eliot: “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.”
Carl Sandburg: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”
Wallace Stevens: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”
William Carlos Williams: “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”
Marianne Moore re: poetry. “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”
Edgar Lee Masters: “And if the people find you can fiddle, Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.”
Vachel Lindsay: “Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, Cutting through the forest with a golden track.”
D.H. Lawrence: “There is nothing to save, now all is lost, but a tiny core of stillness in the heart like the eye of a violet.”
Needless to say, the Ruth Lilly bequest wrought extraordinary changes beginning with a glistening four-story glass and steel building in downtown Chicago named The Poetry Foundation building, which houses the magazine’s offices, a 30,000 volume library, a performance hall, audio/video facilities and much more. Poetry competitions and cash awards abound. The current Editor, Christian Wiman, writes: “Let us remember that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”
How sadly ironic that of the many poems Ruth Lilly herself submitted to Poetry, not one was ever published. But as Harriet Monroe noted:
We linger not—swiftly the new age runs
And he must haste who takes her by the hand.