My dear Miss Monroe,
Anyway, what did you write?
Much of it was resented or pilloried by your fellow writers. But poets could only resent Miss Monroe's poetry fairly if they chose first to read it. And evidently they do not.
Your volume, Chosen Poems (Macmillan, 1935), collecting your own favorites from your books to date at the age of seventy-five, has been checked out by borrowers from Columbia University's Butler Library for a grand total of five times in the last twenty years, when I last looked. I have chosen Columbia as a measuring stick of your prevalent unpopularity not only because this university offers a large undergraduate and graduate English program, but also a well-established M. F. A. in creative writing program, as well as an esteemed sister institution, Barnard College. The fact that so few readers have chosen to read you should go far to suggest the immemorial dust that has come to coat Miss Monroe's poems.
Is the dust just, and did Harriet anticipate its silent future downpour? Perhaps tellingly, the volume's introduction is not called that. Instead, you gave it the title of "Apologia," and in it you freely admit, "I offer apologies that this book is not full of masterpieces. Would it were worthier of me . . . ."
That is a curious comment, since in it Monroe the editor seems to detach herself from Monroe the writer, finding in the writer much to disappoint. And yet, the poet herself may feel none of that regret. The two selves, the poetry editor and the poet, therefore may have called a kind of truce. For if Monroe the editor found the contents not to her liking, and if the editor were assumed to prevail in editing Chosen Poems, then that book might never have been published: the editor would have forbidden it. But if, on the other hand, the poet took charge of assembling the volume, then the book would not only have been published. The editor would also have been banished from making belittling comments in the introduction. The presence of poet and editor together in the pages of your prose preface implies that one will let the other live, so as not to bear the grievous blame for killing another off. In such ways did you maintain a difficult balance.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Even so, let's consider your plaint again in your preface: "Would it [Chosen Poems] were worthier of me . . . ."
If she the poet has failed to write masterpieces worthy of "me," then Miss Monroe's "me" must be the editor, and not the writer. And if the provisional unitary "me" is indeed an editor, and not a poet--and not, either, a hybrid of them both--then what hope could Miss Monroe pretend to give herself or her poetry? The editor would be assumed to rule. The editor, harshly fair or fairly harsh, did not care how the poet felt, or with what pangs the poems were made. No, the editor cared only about the result. For an editor a poem, such as it was, could be no better, and could do no better, than the poet could.
If you could not quite reconcile your criticism as an editor with your pleasure as a poet, then the chosen poems should show the strains implied. The poems in this "chosen" book show a writer striving, with mixed results. Some are so thickly, deeply dusted that we almost cannot read the poem anymore through the coating. The poem no longer seems to be one. The editor was right.
Yet in your handful of resolute relative successes, we can find poems, even at this late and dusty date. Looking through the intervening years at the poems, we can pause as well to imagine what your fellow poets might have seen in them, or missed. Pausing to look as those others once must have looked, we can wonder why they missed what they did.
Some of your best poems seem to have been written from an urge to report. You did not appear to write under the pressure to explore yourself or to seek sanctuary in the poem as an ideal habitat of your own imagining. Nor was description the main goal, or even the primary means to another goal.
Instead, you ventured out, and reported back.
The instinct to write as a reporter would have come to you as second nature, since in your youth and middle age you pursued a busy career as a newspaper and magazine journalist. Your arts criticism and feature writing took you not only to galleries and theaters in Chicago, but repeatedly to New York, London, and the European capitals. You wrote regularly for the Chicago Tribune and many other periodicals. As a reportorial essayist and frequent travel writer, Miss Monroe could offer long experience. Not only her poems but also her essays appeared in the likes of The Century and The Atlantic, among other major venues for writers, where her self-confidence carried her perhaps a little further than could her sentences.
A reader of you would do well to compare your observational acuity in the prose with that shown in the poetry. Your most convincing poems outshine your prose, unmistakably. Ironically, for someone best known as a prominent editor, a prolific reporter and critic, and a lackluster poet, you may have left your firmest signature in a handful of poems that partook, for their strength, of a talent not nominally "poetic" at all: that is, from the strength of a realist's eye for the actual.
In your poem "The Hotel," for example, inspired by New York's Waldorf-Astoria, you survey selectively the contents (and events) of a typically swashbuckling hotel of the gilded age. No setting is specified in the poem; the small particulars merely collect in single sentences, stacked compactly one upon another. Each sentence observes one aspect of the hotel: the "Turkish room," so called; the "telephone girls" at work in their "little black caps"; the electric lights, not yet taken for granted; the "dowagers," waiters, and so on. Each sentence streams out of bounds of the couplet that might have been intended, at some early point in the composing, to contain it. As in Whitman's free verse, phrases body forth.
Unlike Whitman's own, however, your every sentence finds a concrete and parsimoniously proper endpoint in a punctilious period that will not yield its authority to mind, word, god, or even to the dictates of poetic design or poetic temperament. Although you seem at first to echo in this poem Whitman's shaggy additive delight, your way is far more austere and prohibitive. As a writer who had watched Chicago rebuild after the great fire of 1871, and as the sister-in-law of the leading Chicago architect John Wellborn Root, perhaps you could not help but admire and evoke a soaring rectilinearity in your free-verse ode to the hotel, which was written half a decade before the poetic experiments of Ezra Pound and Carl Sandburg. Your respect for security of structure both guided you and limited you.
The security of your chosen structure in "The Hotel" led you to explore more than just the trinkets of the Turkish room, though. After seventeen sentences have observed seventeen locales within the establishment, the poem diverges into "[t]he invisible stories of furnaces and machines, burrowing deep / down into the earth, where grimy workmen are heavily / laboring."
From there, you voyage into lives that would have been obscure to you in real life--the "wax-white cells" of workers, for instance--and then into the "souls inside of bodies," and then into the "God inside of the souls." The poem's expanding spiral concludes by reaching a point of liberation at last: God intercedes to set all free in the small universe of the hotel.
The workmanlike structure of the poem eschews conventional verse forms in order to build something accurately and self-evidently new. Yet Miss Monroe does not confine herself or her poem to the potentially mundane business of rebellion from the precedents of formalism. You neither elevate artificially, with cloying sentiment, the need to build again, nor flatten any motive to do so. Your closing idealism does not jostle the poem, but settles it. (The realism of "The Hotel" contrasts favorably with the more conventionally literary Victorian flourishes of your poem "The Turbine," which Ezra Pound despised. "The Turbine" personifies that very machine as a queenly muse.)
Your poem "On a Train" in Chosen Poems carries itself with the same ease of reportorial accuracy as "The Hotel." The poet's decision to observe seems to have freed Miss Monroe from the need to conclude. This carefree narrator, though, is not altogether free of care, since the details as described seem to matter as much to her as they might have to an Imagist. And yet, Miss Monroe does not anoint the narrator as an avatar of insight imposing on the scene; instead, the writer renders the real as real. You do not judge too much, or too soon. Even the boozing man aboard strikes the narrator as an interesting diversion for her: "Athletic, beautiful, grotesque," his soul has been made available to him, and is therefore also made available (maybe a little too available?) to the narrator.
Like a Katherine Mansfield of the stanza, you can evoke in sure, economical strokes of language certain lives, and not others.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Apart from four plays in verse, never staged, your Chosen Poems contains 106 poems and poem sequences, the vast majority of which are rhymed and written in meter. Although the few exceptions may not as a whole persuade a critic of Miss Monroe's superior abilities, at least two, "On the Train" and "The Hotel," do bring her credit. I wonder whether you would agree or why, if you would, you didn't turn away more often from formal verse and toward what was for you the more promising vers libre.
Still, free verse wasn't a foolproof alternative for you.
Only look at your poem "Galveston," perhaps written in the wake of Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," to see the proof: "Galveston, poised like a sea-gull on her island, / Dipping her feet in foam / As the waves come racing in from the Gulf, / Breathing the salt sea-spray and the pink scent of oleanders-- / Beautiful Galveston, spreading wide her white wings in the sun!" You would have done better in the poem to describe the island town in realistic detail, as you did in "The Hotel" and in "On the Train."
Your poems of observation in general surpass your poems of personal revelation. The revelations are almost unfailingly mawkish, as in "Years After," an elegy for "he . . . who was my love," a poem beset by birds singing at a chill gravesite, where the word "amen" is deemed by the author to bid farewell to the poem very well indeed.
But at least "Years After" says goodbye soon enough, after only twelve lines. Your confessional poem, "Ten Years Old," about the suicide of a sixteen-year-old girl named Lizzie Wescott, addresses at interminable length the narrator's own panic at death. The fact that the narrator is Miss Monroe herself--the poem refers to your sister by the sister's actual nickname--does nothing to improve the poem's authority. It remains a melodrama made of an interior monologue, clotted with perfervid dashes, exclamations, and question marks. ("What is it to be dead? . . . . How could He send her little soul to burn in Hell forever!")
As "Galveston" may have been composed in the wake of Ezra Pound, your poem "Grade Crossing" may have been written with the example of Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River" epitaph poems in mind. You published both men's poetry in Poetry; you read them closely. Written to commemorate the accidental death of William and Mary Tanner in Winnetka, Illinois, on September 1, 1919, "Grade Crossing" attempts less, and at greater length, than the Spoon River poems. Whereas Masters summoned up a life in few lines, as well as a coronary judgment on the life in the words of "he" who had lived it, you recount merely the facts of the death. Commemorating two strangers in depth seemed to lie beyond your poetic range.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Still, to denounce a poet is not to offer comments fairly on that poet as an editor. For an editor need not display exceptional skills as a writer in order to claim authority as an editor; the profession of editor is not to write, but to edit.
Regardless, the traditionally infernal subjection of writers to editors may help to explain the spirit of acrimony that clings to Miss Monroe's memory. True, editors may feel a similar subjection to the demands of writers--or to those of publishers, CEO's, et al., holding sway over the editor. Subjection is indeed a common state. And yet, because editors are able to make one decision not available to writers--to publish, or not to publish--they will forever pay a kind of price.
You were perceived by your adversaries as an editor who used poets but poorly, and as a poet who used words but poorly; your poetry has been cited as further evidence of your editorial inability. But by that logic one might say of the poets: how could they be expected to write well, if they could not also edit well?
The discrepancies of such a logic should help to ease part of the burden from the maligned Miss Monroe. Even if they don't, the discrepancies draw attention back, once again, to the flaws of that ungenerous logic.
Much like writing, editing is--or can be--a work of high invention and mercurial mission, the creation of talent and the vagaries of editorial temperament. No less than the writer, the editor must be allowed--even urged--his or her frailties.
That you published a magazine of poetry when few other poets tried to, and when most other editors were disinclined to, suggests that some attention should be paid, after your editing.