My dear Miss Monroe,
As the founding editor of Poetry, you wanted to discover whatever you could not make or do yourself.
Would the poets hinder you, or help?
Some might help and others hinder. Some reached toward you, with a kind of warmth. Others kicked and grumbled, in retreat. Some were able to work quite serenely with Miss Monroe on revising their poems, almost as her coeditors. Others staged all manner of revolt.
The reclusive and itinerant American poet Laura Riding, for instance, changed addresses so often that we read her correspondence with you, over the years, as if peering from afar at a flock of one.
Meanwhile, Riding seemed to seclude herself in her poetry. Her long poem, "Body's Head," led off the November 1925 issue of Poetry, and suggests the author's queenly reticence in the first few lines of fifteen adroitly overflowing stanzas: "Separate and silk, / A scarf unwoven, / Thin enough to keep a little of it-- / A little less brown the earth would be / If rain changed from silver to gold-- / Lean out anxiously over my forehead, / Trembling and giddy and falling / At the top of skyscraper me."
Wrapped in tresses, Riding's persona here looms large, "skyscraper me." But only a year earlier, when first submitted to Poetry, her poem extended some six dozen lines further than it would, eventually, in the magazine. After more than a decade of working as Poetry's editor-in-chief, Miss Monroe evidently felt confident enough to ask Riding to cut the poem by one third as a condition of accepting "Body's Head" for publication.
As detailed in surviving letters written by Riding to her editor in the spring and summer of 1924, the editorial suggestions did not stop there. Along with shaking excess ripples from Riding's poem, you recommended other changes, too: things considered, discussed and, for the most part, accepted by Riding as she went to work on the revision. Although not known to posterity for a conciliatory temperament, the twenty-three-year-old Riding seemed to find the tampering pencil of her sixty-three-year-old editor worthwhile, somehow.
Miss Monroe had already published Riding, who was then called Laura Gottschalk, thanks to her husband of the time. The January 1924 issue of Poetry contains Riding's "The City of Cold Women," a poem in seven parts, occupying three pages of the magazine. Still, this poem is patently less ambitious than "Body's Head," which when published in Poetry ran for eight pages and 191 lines, unusually long by the magazine's standards. Your demand of Riding to shorten her manuscript by a third was therefore not surprising.
Still, shortening it might have circumvented the scope of the poem. In "Body's Head," a mind talks to itself from within a world of its own. But the mind seems curious to know more than it can. Reading Riding's poem in its early draft, we find the poem turning an eye ambitiously on whatever lies outside the self while still attached to it, letting that thing live on, out there, in Riding's contented elegy for a body not yet dead.
Endearingly, her poem salutes the body with a mind that claims much for itself, and yet mocks itself, deferring to the eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. When sketching such a collusive collision of parts, Riding also allows body and mind to persist in an alliance. The mind offering all the insights in the poem seems to be ticklishly aware of its own ambitiousness. Mind consorts ambivalently with features of the head--after all, home to it--in an ironic recognition of the mind's grandiosity.
Tone is partly responsible for the success of the poem. Yet to describe Riding's tone in "Body's Head" is difficult. We might call her tone omniscient, yet humbled; questing, but sequestered; at once abstract and willfully personifying. Addressing the body as a property, the narrator of the poem cannot claim too much--then goes ahead and does it, anyhow. The metaphors billow in their persistence, as though the body's plenty wished to overcome the mind that would take charge.
Writing in her twenties, Riding can be forgiven some lapses into coyness, as when her voluminous poem sashays off toward a sentimental neverland of pathetic fallacy, where eyes are "[t]he moon's particular godmother gift," or where they bow as "sad squires," or where they traffic, unfortunately, with sublime mountain summits and horizons.
"When grief comes like a beggar to my eyelids," Riding wrote, "Sight throws it pennies." At times anxiously intrepid, the poet could not always stop herself from such embroiderings, but probably sometimes should have stopped.
My dear Miss Monroe,
In the first letter still extant from Laura Riding to you about her poem, "Body's Head," she remarked, "I'm glad you like Body's Head well enough to want to see it again." [sic] She commented on the draft enclosed, emended by herself, "I think this is the best I can do with it without making it unrecognizable."
From a second letter of Riding's, dated three weeks later, we can infer that her early revision for you did not please the editor well enough. "The new cuts you suggest I shall certainly be glad to consider," Riding conceded. But she also made it clear in this second letter that more cuts beyond those would not be welcome.
Three weeks after the second letter, when Riding wrote her longest surviving letter to you, she reported: "My conscience feels highly relieved since you have pointed out what my perversity prevented me from admitting from the beginning: that the whole devilish length of ['Body's Head'] could be discreetly suppressed here and there at least for the purpose of publication in this particular instance."
In essence, you seem to have convinced an author to behave as an editor, also. As such, a poet and an editor may work together as a pair of colleagues, temporarily. In the business of publishing, this ideal is realized too rarely. Bygone for once seem the usual perversities of distressing power inequities.
When Riding addresses, for instance, the further revision of stanza two in the poem, she restores a line that you had wished to cut because she wants to preserve the transition that it provides. Working now as an "editor," with certain assumed rights and prerogatives, she can make that decision and hope for you to respect it. However, Riding accedes to other cuts advised by Miss Monroe in this stanza. As an "editor" herself, perhaps she can do so with a certain grace and ease, relieved of a poet's all but innate need to "stet" and defend.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Your wish to shorten Laura Riding's poem, "Body's Head," did prevail, in the end. You worked hard, along with Riding, to see that it did. In the course of editing, you also revealed your willingness to negotiate. Even so, the ironies of ownership--a theme central to the poem itself--grow as we read and reread the revised version, and then its further revisions.
Two months after "Body's Head" was published in Poetry, Riding wrote to thank you and to mention, not so incidentally, that her unedited, unrevised version of the poem had just surfaced, as well, in a new issue of The Calendar of Monthly Letters, an English periodical. Apparently embarrassed more by the simultaneity of publication than by the unexpected reappearance of the non-Monroe version of the poem, Riding sought to reassure you that it was all the fault of the poet Robert Graves, then her sidekick, who "handled [it] with the best of intentions . . . but with no intervention on my part."
Added Riding to Miss Monroe, "I hope I am the first to call your attention to this and that you'll see I was entirely helpless."
My dear Miss Monroe,
"Entirely helpless": is this the disingenous plea of someone, Laura Riding, who chose to publish the poem in her own way, on her own terms, and on another continent, Miss Monroe be damned?
Riding was then busy insinuating herself into a six-month-long menage a trois in Egypt with Graves and his erstwhile wife. Soon enough, he would be helping the helpless one to revise the poems of her debut poetry collection, The Close Chaplet, published in 1926 by the Hogarth Press at Graves' urging.
Indeed, The Close Chaplet included "Body's Head" as the volume's longest and most prominent poem. The book's version of the poem revises the Monroe version by restoring passages present in Riding's original manuscript sent to you but cut during your editorial pas de deux with her.
Thus, retrospectively, Riding resolutely cut out her editor from the poem, in a resounding pas de don't. Did she learn how from you?
My dear Miss Monroe,
Although The Close Chaplet went on to sell only twenty-five copies, according to one source, Laura Riding was able to publish other books in England after it, thanks partly to her relationship with Robert Graves.
Perhaps she would not need any further help from editor Harriet Monroe.
Yet the ironies of ownership continue to accrue. For after materializing in her first book, "Body's Head" returned in such a distinctly abbreviated form in Riding's 1938 edition of her Poems that the 1938 version is almost unrecognizable.
The 1938 "Body's Head," retitled as "Pride of Head," consists of only two stanzas, totaling a mere twenty-three lines.
By making such drastic cuts, Riding outdid even her editor.
Was she only doing as you'd asked?
My dear Miss Monroe,
My students at the Unterberg Poetry Center in New York have offered an interesting range of opinions on the surprisingly long-lasting Riding-Monroe editorial duet.
I invited these students, who are all poets, to "become" Harriet Monroe for an hour or two and edit Laura Riding's original manuscript of "Body's Head," submitted to Poetry in 1924. Then I polled them on their editing decisions.
Resolved one student, "I would cut half of the poem." This student found Riding's manuscript far more excessive than you ever did.
Another student noted, "I recognize the voice of Riding in the beginning of the poem, but it can slip into Donne, Marvell, and Shakespeare later on. So I would try to cut or underplay those other voices, and work on resolving the inconsistent diction."
A third student saluted what she called Riding's "chutzpah" for "luxuriating" at such a length in the original poem. Although this student acknowledged that Miss Monroe "made this a much more coherent poem," the student objected to "the 'civilizing' of the poem by the editor."
A fourth student, whose prizewinning poetry is well known, remarked of Riding's sensibility in the original poem: "This is someone who is free. It's kind of messy, and the poem has high-school moments, but I was charmed by it." She was charmed especially by one element: "Just to consider your head--what a weird and interesting thing to do!"