My dear Miss Monroe,
The centennial anniversary of Poetry magazine's founding was at hand, some months ago. What was I to do about it?
Well, write. Write, of course, about you.
But no one wanted it.
I tried wherever I could think of: book publishers, who roundly insisted that a book about you would never sell. A New York literary agent, who informed me that, unless I could uncover a great love affair for you with an even more prominent and famous person, my project would never find a home. Was the secret lover to be William Jennings Bryan, I wonder? Or Jane Addams?
I also tried the quarterly literary journals. The various literary websites. The poetry advocacy organizations, which did not seem ready, willing, or able to "advocate" for Harriet. A second literary agent, who advised that I might have hard work to do in order to overcome the impression you had left behind of having lived a rather "dull" daily life. (Bobo, whose life isn't?)
Eventually I also tried the poets themselves, who tend to react in one of two ways to you now, Harriet. Poets tend to react with a vague disdain for Miss Monroe's supposedly slow-witted, or uncaring, treatment of poets and their poetry. (They may mask their disdain with boredom.) Or, poets tend to react with fear of Miss Monroe's current-day Poetry Foundation.
For yes, my dear Miss Mionroe, your magazine has survived you in such a way as to outdo even your most militant triumphalist fantasies. Your desire for a future in poetry for all poets, potentially, although sometimes mocked in your day, has come to be.
Your magazine has continued without interruption, published monthly since its first issue. And Poetry still pays poets to publish their poetry, which for you was both an innovation and a sticking point. For poets it remains something of a rarity.
In addition, one might say that Poetry was the harbinger of a gradually developing national (and international) poetry "business," owed partly to you and to Poetry, which now includes an extensive educational infrastructure, widespread grant funding for poets, an array of poetry prizes, and the publicity and public programming to go with these. You'd be shocked--pleasantly--by it.
And then, there is the Poetry windfall: an act of favor methodically conferred upon Poetry in very much the Chicago way. In 2001, the heiress to a midwestern fortune, Ruth Lilly, who loved poetry (and wrote it), chose to bequeath the fortune to your enduring storefront. The sum would have astounded you perhaps more than anyone: an estimated $100 million, to be disbursed over a period of two or three decades.
This may well promise us a Poetry in perpetuity, with expanded programs, now a new building of its own for the first time, and whatever a foundation president, editors, staff, board, readers, and writers may imagine for it.
But something bothers me about all this.
It is, as I've said already: people seem to fear poetry. More to the point, they seem to fear the Poetry Foundation, which belongs to you still, morally.
Before I began writing letters to you, I contacted almost everyone I knew (or didn't) in a search for ideas, aided by one or two overwhelming questions. To my surprise, very few people answered candidly, at any length, or sometimes at all. Virtually no one would speak on the record.
Although I cannot speak for them, I can for me: what will the buttoned lip possibly accomplish?
A leader of the pack assured me that poets were keeping silent for fear offending your institution, which could make or break their careers.
Harriet, are you laughing at the irony?
What is wrong with sharing ideas? At its very best, isn't poetry a disagreement?
Harriet, you wouldn't like our silence.
My dear Miss Monroe,
To break the silence, I wish you'd reappear and talk to us.
This is how I picture it: in July a sunny Saturday, with scudding clouds. On the grassy breadth of Grant Park in Chicago near Lake Michigan, with picnic tables, a grill, and a tetherball or two, the gaggle gathers. Us. Them. You.
Us. Them. You.
There is Amy Lowell with a parasol, peering at the line-up for a sack race. There is Vachel Lindsay, dancing barefoot, with a root beer. There is D. H. Lawrence, coughing badly.
Edna St. Vincent Millay flirts with Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams slings a Frisbee to Bob Holman. Yusef Komunyakaa catches it. Hart Crane swigs one, while chatting with Mark Doty. Susan Wheeler reunites with Lorine Niedecker.
In a hammock, Jim Cummins screens "The Maltese Falcon" on his laptop. Near the lemonade, Emily Dickinson finds herself facing the smiles of Susan Howe, Alice Quinn, Brenda Hillman, Richard Howard, and Lucie Brock-Broido. In a patch of shade, William Butler Yeats tries to teach Rabindranath Tagore how to play online solitaire. Meanwhile, David Lehman searches the premises for the editor.
Everyone else is there, too.
David isn't the only one left waiting for you. Nearby, on a sloping urban knoll designed with a sleek modern Danish reticence, a tufty-headed man of uncertain age stands upright, in waistcoat, gazing imperiously at a distant cloud loitering high above the lake. As if responding to a summons inaudible to any but himself, he picks up a large, stately bow and arrow, takes studious aim, and shoots to kill the cloud.
Falcon-faced, the archer utters a sneeze that stirs the immaculately tiered midsummer wildflowers agog on their gnarled, hairy stems. Recovering from his pollen outburst, he seeks to steady himself. He stares again at the cloud with a kind of craving.
Suddenly he chimes in solitary earnest, "Harriet! Harriet! Where are you?"
His voice reverberates and reverberates. Except for the muted roar of city traffic, there is no answer.
A goat enters the scene, climbing the knoll on confident, dainty cloven feet. Picking his way (it is a "he"), the goat shows a wary interest in the archer, although the archer seems not to return this.
The goat draws closer. Lifting his muzzle as if beckoned by a pungent aroma, the goat observes the archer's dusty boots, old leather rucksack, and wispily luxuriant remnants of a short reddish beard.
When the goat's eyes finally reach the man's, quizzical meets quizzical, as it will. In obeisance the goat trills a customary hello. He's got a good vibrato. The archer hopes to acknowledge his admirer. In Greek he sounds a musical reply.
Stern. Egalitarian. Straightforward. Insightful. Determined. Honorable. Any of those adjectives could describe man and animal.
The man's raptor-face relents. Foregoing any words, he utters a hoarse cry in salutation of his better half.
Charmed, the goat begins gnawing deferentially on the man's Italian-made shoelaces.
Patting the goat on the forehead with an air of friendly gravity, Ezra Pound asks, "Is it you, Harriet?"
My dear Miss Monroe,
The sometime metronome of Chicago, audible in sleep by skin, is polyglot in trick and pitch, much like the smaller burgs of the city's nooks and shadows, its spooks and yawning criers, are polyglot, also: feel it as a knock-knock of beginning sung in the temperamental rising of brick or steel or plaster, mounded. But the rising rhythm is as well the tap-tap of the lilt of the dead, who began before and will not stop in their damp alleys.
The featherweight intentions ply with raucous clatter a river once known to be so greasy, so clotted, it could even burn--though the fantasy of fester, too, seemed unreal or impossible, grisly as the muscular oyster of nights of renown. Still, consider it: since that river did burn, unlike the mild lake that has rimmed whatever of the sand would accept a curve, shallow always. (Minute watery ticking not of bass, salmon, or clownish catfish but of the meager silvery coin-shaped smelt swarms.)
A Geigerish city it is, loving to count, and to count itself. So, count Chicago in buttons, in hub caps, in old blueprints; in scuffed iotas of north, posted on a city grid; in a lone opera bodice of a sweltering mezzo-soprano, imported from the Norse; in billowing yelps from her fathomless lips. Empty of action at 4 a.m., blackened by the day and night before, Chicago's old-fashioned girth would seem to intercede, sly. Yet the breath snarls. Policed, unkempt, at cross-purposes, an opera of robust stealth starts to chirp, anyhow.
Voices of the trucks, cabs, and elevated subways skulk into the shadows. The forgotten hounds of Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg sigh and tramp, investigating Tuesday's drumsticks.
Overheard upstairs, the gripes and gimmicks rankle, wraiths of wraiths that sneak around the plaza anyhow, blowsy with the soused guffaws of the air. Those dead are mouthing interminable. The opera never quite concludes. So too with the rumors of a writing long ago in Chicago.
Tucked up near the top of the old Fine Arts Building, ear tilted to the yawps of seagulls, one "gets" the city: a handsome thicket of grueling requests and disagreements. For to settle and attempt survival in a knockabout town of eyrie architects, shrewd or remiss, conscious or brutal, physical or literary, is to vie for status.
A request, overheard: Vachel Lindsay, writing to Miss Monroe in 1914. "I want you to do me a very great favor, if it can be arranged with no great trouble to yourself," Lindsay informed you. "I want to be asked to St. Louis by some one you know . . . I want to see Sara [Teasdale]." He believed, "She is a lovely chick in a gilded cage." He assured you that his was "[a] purely PLATONIC admiration."
He continued, "But since I have written about ten thousand letters to Sara--and have only seen her 24 hours of me life--one long rather strained day--I want to correct the lopsidedness--or letter-sidedness--of our acquantance, and be able to chat at leisure."
A request, overheard: Kenneth Patchen, writing to Miss Monroe in 1933. "I have spent in all about eight months upon the road; severe hardships and paralyzing disappointment had hounded my steps through the haunts of the homeless in the south and west. I am in a peculiar sense without a home . . . I write to you in the hope that you (or some member of your staff) will see fit to advise or make suggestions."
He enclosed poems for your consideration. You accepted three. He replied, "I am grateful to you." And: "My name is spelled Patchen not Pachin."
A request, overheard: Osbert Sitwell, writing to you in 1921. "Dear Miss Harriet Monroe, I have the pleasure of submitting to you 3 poems by myself and 3 by my brother. We should be so delighted if you should publish them."
Added Osbert: "I hope I am not overwhelming you with my family?"
Other poets were more circumspect. The teensy, drab, inoffensive handwriting in pencil of Wallace Stevens on yellow, ruled paper arrived in a letter he mailed to Chicago from Woodstock, New York, in 1917, and the poems that came with it were also written on yellow, ruled paper in pencil. It's as though Stevens wanted to keep himself secret. But his handwriting becomes much easier to read in the poems than in the letter, even when a substantial French epigraph precedes a long sequence of stanzas. His ordinarily difficult hand--sharp, spiky, spigotted--seems to have been tamed or cajoled by the poetry. He confided in 1920, "Dear Miss Monroe: I am much more modest than you think, or than the overblown bloom I am suggests."
A request, overheard: from a "sweat-shop worker" from 307 West 20th Street in New York City. Helen O'Sullivan Dixon wrote to you in 1919. "As the outcome of a fond ambition to do something worthwhile in literature, I have been making a very serious and long sustained effort to produce something meritorious. It is quite a long story or rather a series of connected stories told in blank verse. In it I have concentrated nearly all the wisdom and philosophy I have acquired, all in the hope of helping humanity to inspire my readers to noble efforts for self mastery and improvement."
Miss Dixon added: "I know of none better qualified than you to judge whether or not I have succeeded."
A request, overheard: from John Wilson Clanton from Percilla, Texas, in 1918. "I am sending a few verses for your kind consideration. They may be worthless trash."
A request, overheard: from Samuel Heller of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1916. "Please accept this sonnet which I have written in honor of you. Perhaps you will think my poem a little too uplifting, but it is not."
A request, overheard: from S. Birch Gourley from Chicago, in 1914. "I am rapping, gently tapping / At your guarded sanctum door; / And I hope to gain admission / Though I've ne'er rapped thus before."
A request, overheard: from Mrs. Ellen Geer from Berkeley, California, in 1915. "I see you hold a very high ideal for Poetry, as you have returned every poem I have ever sent you. You may think me persistent, but I mean to keep on trying till all my poetry is wanted."
As Miss Monroe acknowledged, "Poets from far and near came . . . as to a kind of headquarters."
Goodbye for now, Harriet.