Poetry: A Magazine of Verse
POETRY: A MAGAZINE OF VERSE
Poetry: A Magazine of Verse published most of the poets who revolutionized modern American poetry. From the time Harriet Monroe (1860–1936) brought out the first issue in October 1912, her goal was not only to publish the innovative poets who were not receiving a hearing in contemporary literary magazines but also to find the poet who, like Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century, would be the twentieth century's great poet. Monroe's ambition was more than fulfilled when early contributors to her magazine included W. B. Yeats, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore. Her pages were open to all styles of poetry, from the experimental free verse of H.D. to the traditional blank verse of Wallace Stevens, from the expansiveness of Vachel Lindsay to the spare notations of William Carlos Williams. Romantic authors such as Rupert Brooke and Joyce Kilmer (whose "Trees," in August 1913, was the most popular poem the magazine ever published) appeared along with modernists such as Eliot and Pound. The celebration of life, however crude its manifestations, in poets like Lindsay and Carl Sandburg, was balanced with laments about its oppressive power in poets like Eliot and Frost.
Unlike other important modern journals, such as The Egoist and The Dial, Poetry was devoted exclusively to verse. Unlike the Little Review and Others, it placed no premium on experimental work even though some of the most innovative poems of Pound, Eliot, and Hart Crane appeared in its pages. It took no direct stands on social issues except to assert the right of poets to be heard, however controversial their subject matter or style. In an era of embattled, short-lived literary journals, Poetry distinguished itself through regular monthly publication from 1912 into the early twenty-first century.
BEGINNINGS IN CHICAGO
Although New York was a greater cultural and publishing center, Chicago also had a claim to high culture, established by institutions such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Little Theatre, and the Art Institute. Harriet Monroe came from a pioneer Chicago family, which gave her entrée to art patrons such as Cyrus McCormick, Mrs. George M. Pullman, Charles H. Swift, and Clarence Darrow.
In her own career as a poet (she was fifty-one when she founded her magazine), she had found few places in America that published poetry. Little was published in popular magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner's, and Harper's, and that was of a conventional and inspirational type. Monroe's single commercial success was her "Columbian Ode," for which she was paid $1,000 and which was performed at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1892. Monroe believed that the poet should enjoy the same kind of commissions, prizes, and institutional support as the artist, playwright, and musician. With this argument, she began implementing in June 1911 her plan to convince one hundred people to underwrite the magazine.
By June 1912 she had over a hundred "guarantors" (a number she later learned would not be adequate) to underwrite the magazine at $50 a year for five years and printed up a "poet's circular," sporting Poetry's Pegasus logo and a quotation from Whitman, "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too," that she sent out to potential contributors. The flyer announced that contributors would be paid, all types of poetry would be considered, and a prize would be awarded for the best poem published each year. In Poetry's second issue, in November 1912, she stated the "Open Door" policy of the magazine: to avoid any "entangling alliances" with schools of poetry or editorial policies. The Chicago poet Alice Corbin Henderson joined her as associate editor for the salary of $40 per month.
Poetry survived a series of financial crises. Because it paid about $10 a page for contributions, its publishing costs in its first years were high—between $9,000 and $10,000 annually. A third of this sum came from the patrons, and the rest from subscriptions of $1.50 per year, gifts, and some advertising. Monroe was counting on libraries and lovers of the arts to support Poetry, but paid subscriptions for 1912–1913 totaled only 1,030 subscriptions. With a subscription list that never went above three thousand, Monroe kept the magazine going year to year through tireless solicitation of gifts and grants.
EARLY ARTISTIC SUCCESS AND EZRA POUND
From the start the magazine was an artistic success. Monroe sent out letters to those she considered the best of the established poets, such as W. B. Yeats and Edwin Arlington Robinson, and to newer poets, such as Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, and Ezra Pound. Pound (1885–1972) not only sent two poems of his own that were used in the first issue but served as an unpaid foreign correspondent, sending contributions from such poets as Rabindranath Tagore, Hilda Doolittle, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. Tagore's poems in the December 1912 issue appeared before the Bengali poet won the Nobel Prize in 1913. Pound immediately brought controversy and welcome publicity to Poetry when it published in January 1913 a group of poems that he submitted by Hilda Doolittle signed, "H.D., Imagiste." Both the readers who wished to ridicule the gnomic utterances of the highly compressed, haiku-like imagist poems and poets who, like Amy Lowell, discovered that they too were imagists wanted to know more about the movement. Pound provided the information in an essay "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste" (March 1913), which stated the principles of good writing that Poetry was proud to be associated (but not identified) with: the image as expression rather than ornament, no wasted words, and rhythms that would express rather than override the meaning. Pound's own two-line poem, "In a Station at the Metro" (April 1915), was one of the celebrated imagist pieces that appeared in the journal. Poems by D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, and Wallace Stevens as well as H. D. seemed to develop out of the imagist program. Although it was not an imagist poem, one of Yeats's poems that Pound sent Monroe was among his most compressed lyrics, "The Magi" (May 1914).
Pound's greatest find for Poetry was T. S. Eliot's (1888–1965) "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Monroe at first hesitated to print Eliot's poem because she disliked what she took to be its morbid tone; she also regretted that it did not come to a resounding finish like a poem by Lindsay or Sandburg. Pound later claimed that he had to prod Monroe to publish it; it appeared after some delay as the last poem in the June 1915 issue. Yet Monroe soon published more of Eliot's poetry: "Conversation Galante," "La Figlia che Piange," "Mr. Apollinax," and "Morning at the Window" appeared in the September 1916 issue. However, she annoyed Pound further when she decided on her own to eliminate the word "foetus" from "Mr. Apollinax" and, in the same issue, "bloody" from Pound's poem "Phyllidula." In that literary era editors had more control over their texts, and the U.S. post office represented a constant threat of prosecution of "obscene" material in the mail. Pound and Monroe also clashed when Pound insisted that the Poetry's first Guarantors' Prize go to an established Irish poet rather than Monroe's choice, the young American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931). Pound was right as far as rewarding the better poet, and Monroe graciously deferred to Pound's judgment in awarding the prize to Yeats for "The Grey Rock" rather than to Lindsay for "General William Booth Enters into Heaven." Monroe then managed to scrape up $100 for a special Guarantors' Prize for Lindsay.
HARRIET MONROE AND POETIC TALENT
Monroe felt that Lindsay was the first major talent she had helped to find. The flashy imagery and sound effects of his poetry pleased her and her readers better than imagist compression. When Monroe arranged a banquet on 1 March 1914 to honor W. B. Yeats during his visit to Chicago, she invited Lindsay to speak. In Yeats's speech, the Irish poet generously praised Poetry and Lindsay's "General Booth" poem. Instead of a speech, Lindsay read his dramatic poem "The Congo," which surpassed the sound effects of his Booth poem with refrains like "Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM" and "Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you." The poem launched a career of public performances that included one for President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet in 1915. Poetry awarded him a Levinson Prize for "The Chinese Nightingale" (February 1915), and Monroe's interest in Lindsay extended to an unsuccessful attempt at matchmaking between Lindsay and the St. Louis poet Sara Teasdale.
A poet nearly as flamboyant as Lindsay, Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), received the first of the Levinson Prizes, which were specifically for an American poet, for his "Chicago Poems." Monroe's associate editor Alice Henderson chose Sandburg's work from the unsolicited submissions, and it opened the March 1914 issue. When The Dial magazine attacked Sandburg's supposed formlessness, Monroe answered in an editorial in the May 1914 issue that was one of her finest statements of principle: "We have taken chances, made room for the young and the new, tried to break the chains which enslave Chicago to New York, America to Europe, and the present to the past." A more established but still relatively unknown poet, Robert Frost (1874–1963), appeared in the February 1914 issue with "The Code-Heroics." Pound had met Frost in England and sent his poems to Monroe. Frost was a poet whom both Monroe and Pound were proud to publish. Frost's impressive narrative poem, "The Witch of Coös," appeared in January 1922 and won the Levinson Prize. Frost wrote to Monroe, "I don't care what people think of my poetry so long as they award it prizes."
One of Monroe's most satisfying experiences was discovering and encouraging the work of Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). Monroe was so excited when she read Stevens's "Phases" among the unsolicited manuscripts that she telegraphed him immediately, accepting the poems, and then reorganized the November 1914 issue to make space for them. In Stevens's "Sunday Morning" (November 1915), Monroe published a poem to rival Eliot's "Love Song" in its centrality to modern American poetry. Poetry published two of the most famous modernist lyrics in Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" (part of his "Pecksniffiana" sequence, October 1919) and "The Snow Man" (October 1921). Monroe's relationship with Stevens was so cordial that Stevens agreed when she stipulated that three of the eight stanzas of "Sunday Morning" be dropped. He restored his own stronger version of the poem in his volume Harmonium (1923). Stevens won the Levinson Prize in 1920 for "Pecksniffiana," and Monroe published his verse dramas Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise (which won a one-act play prize of $100, July 1916) and Carlos among the Candles (December 1917). Stevens in turn became Monroe's loyal supporter, returning his contributor's payments and later becoming one of the magazine's guarantors (anonymously). As she did with Lindsay and many other poets, Monroe became a close personal friend of Stevens. They visited each other in Chicago and Stevens's home in Hartford, and Monroe became "Aunt Harriet" to Stevens's daughter Holly.
Harriet Monroe began publishing a series of anthologies in 1917 entitled The New Poetry that became a sourcebook for a new generation of poets. By then Poetry was no longer introducing so many major poets, and the experimental impact of new poems by Pound, Eliot, and H. D. could no longer be matched. But original voices such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Yvor Winters, Langston Hughes, Louise Bogan, Allen Tate, and Hart Crane were published throughout the 1920s. T. S. Eliot wrote in 1954: "There is nothing quite like it anywhere: Poetry has had its imitators, but has so far survived them all. It is an American Institution." Poetry not only survives in the early twenty-first century but also is flourishing with the bequest of $100 million that it announced in 2002 from the heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, Ruth Lilly, whose verse was rejected in the 1970s courteously and personally (in the tradition of Harriet Monroe) by the editor of Poetry.
Monroe, Harriet. A Poet's Life: Seventy Years in a Changing World. New York: Macmillan, 1938.
Parisi, Joseph, and Stephen Young, eds. Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters: The First Fifty Years, 1912–1962. New York: Norton, 2002.
Parisi, Joseph, and Stephen Young, eds. The "Poetry" Anthology, 1912–2002: Ninety Years of America's Most Distinguished Verse Magazine. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
Hoffman, Frederick J., et al. The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography. 2nd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Williams, Ellen. Harriet Monroe and the "Poetry" Renaissance: The First Ten Years of "Poetry," 1912–22. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.