My dear Miss Monroe,
I believe you never would have built Poetry magazine without having seen firsthand what it was like to rebuild Chicago, a burned city.
How did you build Poetry?
Only after the hither and thither of energetic failure.
You weren't well educated, except in the sense that they let you read anything you wanted in your father's library. You were not welcomed into a profession. As a feeble-bodied teenager, you were thrust instead, on doctor's orders, into a convent school boasting a mild climate. There the nuns were to "finish" you. (Same thing happened to the future Mrs. Potter Palmer, a fellow alumna and grand dame of Chicago.)
Yes, the Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., gave you nuns. You were not a Catholic. Nor were many of your fellow students. But your education there was Catholic amid the bricks and mortar of Georgetown, that wealthy nook. I've lurked on cobblestone for long enough there to chase your old haunts.
Did the hilly views of that town's very worldly world help to inspire you, away from home for the first time? And then, the nuns, the teachings, rules, the other girls: they gave you something to think about and maybe something to think against. Later you wrote, "For a time I was a queer little rebellious fish in these strange waters, refusing to get in line, arguing against the rosary." Learning to say no, did you learn something true and useful for the future?
One of your surviving convent-school report cards concludes with the important subject "conduct," after covering forty-six other subjects, from orthography (your grade for that was "generally correct") to Latin (your work showed "great improvement"). Yet with "conduct" your high marks took a fall. For "conduct" you received the mere rating of "satisfactory." Did that disappoint you, or did it please you?
Maybe Latin mattered more to you than conduct. The same was true of your editorial collaborator Ezra Pound, years ahead. Did a taste for disobedience ally you with him in the magazine work you were to share? Although I haven't heard this before, I'm tempted to believe it.
In Georgetown you wrote some of your first poems, thanks to your favorite nun, the "elusive, imaginative, temperamental" Sister Mary Paulina Finn, who taught English. (Nuns were domiciled near the school, and some taught at it.) You preferred writing poetry to various other assignments required of the students, such as "painting rigid flowers on satin boxes."
Sister Paulina told you fifty years later, in 1928, "I like your own prose best of all you print in POETRY." [sic] She commented, "Your review of about ten books of verse . . . was a model of brief criticism, still briefer quotation, reflection, patience, and to me, most of all, a certain humane pathos, in which you may not agree with me."
Sister Paulina also had a question for you. "[W]ere you ever arrrested by a sudden thought that you stood still--fixed to the ground for a moment or two?" [sic] She was.
Strangely or not, this is what you said you got from two years of study at the Visitation Convent, beginning at age sixteen: "a certain questing freedom of mind and spirit."
You brought it home with you.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Your life after Georgetown and before Poetry, rarely idle, sounds to me like a long span of desperate efforts made to meet two standards. One of them: the standard set by Chicago's gradually rebuilt skyline. The other: the standard set by Sister Paulina, that "poet in orders," as you put it, "who found only divinity worth a poet's ardor."
You described her, tellingly, as "a seer of visions." Yet you could not see hers. How it must have frustrated you! Back home, you saw whatever else you could see, whatever Chicago had to show you: the superb, profane visions of skyscrapers, listing upward from a weedy flatness, a tumbled urban plain with smokestacks. It may have been ardor. But it wasn't divinity.
You floundered fiercely. Signs on every side of you in the city spoke without flummery or concealment of how one could be bold, create something of public value: Louis Sullivan's Carson, Pirie Scott and Company building (1899). Daniel Burnham's Reliance building (1890). Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium building (1889). Holabird and Roche's Marquette building (1895). Burnham and Root's Rookery building (1888), in which your talented brother-in-law John Wellborn Root, the architect, participated; later, Frank Lloyd Wright remodeled the inner court.
Yet nothing you did, for years and years and years, provoked the wow or esteem won by those buildings, yesterday or today, nor by the Chicago stockyards, the railroads, the stock exchange, or Chicago's famous fairgrounds Ferris wheel. Even when you were commissioned to write a poem opening the World's Columbian Exposition in 1892, sung by a chorus of five thousand for a Chicago audience of 125,000, you had to fight for it--and the poem (after all) isn't much good. You burned the extra copies of the poem to stay warm in your bedroom, since nobody would buy them.
You wrote, "In 1900 my earnings were $573."
You noted, "As I reached my fortieth year and entered, with the hopeful world, the new century, the professional outlook was rather discouraging."
By 1910 your annual income climbed to $1636. You were not a rich man's daughter. In fact, your family lost its financial bearings, little by little. You were never anyone's wife. And although you were to publish an astonishing array of writing in many of the best places, "there was very meager pay," you acknowledged.
Your essays, reviews, poetry, and travel writing appeared in The Atlantic, The Century, and The Fortnightly Review, among others. Beginning in the late 1880s, you wrote about theater and art for The Chicago Tribune. But elsewhere you wrote many other things, too, starting in 1901, when William Randolph Hearst opened the American, his first Chicago newspaper, and employed you as a freelancer.
You remembered, "Following the city editor's suggestions or my own, I interviewed this or that celebrity; attended a Dowie revival and meeting; wrote a violent slam for the new County Building with its useless and perfunctory superimposed columns; discussed some new play or book or picture; presented phases of the divorce problem; spent a dramatic hour at the Juvenile Court; listened in at a meeting of theosophists; sympathized with Booth-Tucker's denunciation of slum dwellings . . . ." You did everything, in other words, and then wrote the article about it.
Before covering the Armory Show for the Chicago Tribune, you had to talk them into sending you. You reported, "This 1913 exhibition was the most interesting incident of my journalistic career." With dry sarcasm you commented, "New York has at last achieved a cosmopolitan, modern exhibition, which the older art societies have talked about for years but never accomplished."
By then, you knew what you were talking about. A $650 ticket had taken you around the world in 1910 to China, Japan, Europe, and England. In 1908 and 1909 you'd explored the American West, camping out with fellow members of the Sierra Club. During your first trip to New York in 1888, you'd met and mingled with the literary entourage of Richard Watson Gilder and Edmund Clarence Stedman.
But where were the careers for poets?
In your steely way, you mourned, "The minor painter or sculptor was honored with large annual awards in our great cities, while the minor poet was a joke of the paragraphers."
You demanded, "Why was there nothing done for poets, the most unappreciated and ill-paid artists in the world?"
You decided, "[S]ince nobody else was doing anything, it might be 'up to me' to try to stir up the sluggish situation."
My dear Miss Monroe,
To understand what you did, all I have to do is hold poetry in the hand. Poetry magazine, I mean. I'm holding it in mine.
While I do, I'm reminded of a poem by Floyd Dell, "Apologia," published by yourself in Poetry, volume six, number two.
Dell's "Apologia" begins: "I think I have no soul, / Having instead two hands, sensitive and curious, / And ten subtle and inquisitive fingers / Which reach out continually into the world, / Touching and handling things."
With my thumbs I measure your May 1921 issue: eight by five inches, sort of. I would have paid twenty-five cents for its fifty-odd pages ninety-one years ago, when it was first published. A full year's subscription of twelve issues then cost three dollars.
Again I finger the magazine's pages. No sharp edges. A bit heavyweight, and yet still flexible. Any page has a blunt and blurry feel to it as a purely tangible object, along with a hint of unspecified lusciousness. Did some slight oiliness in the paper absorb dust's long kindness? Or merely our customary carbon dixoide?
Your page numbers are less bold and upright than ours tend to be. They're centered at the foot of pages inside the tentative embrace of brackets. Each page can carry something like twenty-seven lines of poetry, or roughly three paragraphs.
I must admit, your cover is undistinguished--a fubsy fawn-gray hue with no gleam in it, bearing two dozen words or so in black, like a forthright scowl. But that, too, with a certain style, brings news--the news of poetry.
I palm old issues of Poetry for a particular reason. It's this: people forget that poetry is physical. Very. Poetry is real. Although imaginative, it is not imaginary. That's what your magazine, surviving still, reminds me today.
Here the words are, after all, still robust and indisputable--the poetry. With thanks, I'm convinced I can walk the finite continent of verse just by turning fifty pages once a month.
Maybe poetry can't be everything, but in your hands it could be almost anything.
In May of 1921, for instance, you've put something into the magazine by Maxwell Bodenheim called, simply, "Sappho Answers Aristotle." I first find the title on your cover. Right away you've got me. How did Sappho answer, I wonder, and how did Aristotle reply to Sappho? What is this, anyhow?
The Bodenheim gambit begins with a nameless poet who poses an unexpected question: "Will you, like other men, / Offer me indigo indignities?"
I don't understand, Miss Harriet Monroe, why people sometimes call you stodgy.
Your issue of October 1919 opens with fourteen poems by Wallace Stevens, given the group title of "Pecksniffiana." (Unknown five years before, when you'd first received a letter from him with submitted poems, he was one of your most significant editorial discoveries.) It is difficult now to respond adequately to this poetry, since successive generations of readers and critics have studied him too much, perhaps, while enjoying him too little. What might Mr. Stevens think of that ponderous assiduousness in us? Maybe somewhere he is glad to be so long bygone from it.
Regardless, the fourteen Stevens poems are stupefying in the best sense. You knew it, and as an editor you made it happen.
On June 23, 1911, you sought advice from a friend. As you would recall, this friend, Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor, well named, agreed with you "that a special magazine, offering a small monthly sheaf of new poems, with editorials and reviews, was a good idea."
Yes, the idea was yours.
And then, as you recalled, "He thought I could get one hundred men in Chicago to subscribe fifty dollars a year for five years to try out the hazardous experiment, provided I was willing to go to their offices and make the plea in person."
Yes, you were willing to beg in person.
(In fact, you "made the plea" before those hundred businessmen with a certain strategy in mind. "In visiting men's offices," you later remembered, "as the idea of such a magazine seemed a bit amusing even to me, it was quite the natural thing to enter with a smile and laugh with the magnate if he thought my scheme ridiculous." Moreover, "I never resented refusals from people I could not persuade, feeling that they had a perfect right to encourage their own hobbies and disregard mine." But you were a stickler. "I would not be stopped by secretaries, those polite evaders whom big men placed at their doors to turn away importunate solicitors like me.")
Mr. Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor had some more advice for you.
"Five thousand dollars a year would be enough, he thought, to pay printing and office expenses, so that the money received for subscriptions could be used to pay the poets for their contributions."
Yes, it was enough.
And then, "In five years, he thought, the magazine would have proved its value and won enough subscribers to be financially independent . . . ."
Well, no, it wasn't.
Oh, Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor, Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor, Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor! He was an expert on Moliere, it seems. He wrote some novels. Once in a while, he worked as a magazine editor. He loved golf. He married well--very. He was also "well-spoken, well-read, and well-connected and he, more than anyone else, knew it and savoured it," remarked a wag. Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor, dear old puss, banding together with Miss Monroe to affirm, advise, endow, doesn't that name of yours ask for and deserve a heraldic rapster tune, a way for H. C. C.-T. to live on with a certain awkward knowing verve? We-love-you, Hobart. I dote upon a hyphen. I pine for another, soon. Soon.
Harriet, you needed him. You got him. And you did it.