My dear Miss Monroe,
Were you, founder of Poetry magazine in 1912, a good editor?
Now, we cannot see straight through to you. After all is said and done, your very own poets have come to obscure you. They got in your way (sometimes). Even today, they get in ours.
Ironically, Miss Harriet Monroe has become well known for imposing her will as an editor on poets who were often quite reluctant to receive it. Their complaints, some shy of a century old, still rustle in the contemporary ear--whispered betimes by living poets, some of whom are no more friendly to editors, dead or alive, than any other poets were.
Did your own poets resent you slightly less for your editing than for your poetry? Like their own, it staked a fragile claim upon a culture, as much poetry seems to do. Yet if their editor wrote but poorly, or even if she wrote no more than adequately, then could she edit other poets and their poetry with authority, or without?
Unlike them, as an editor Harriet chose to publish her own poetry in her own magazine, and also chose which of her poems to publish, with a compound tenacity. Miss Monroe's power seemed to overwhelm theirs. Or did it, finally?
We know you as a doughty and well-disciplined sole proprietor in 2013, slightly more than a century after Poetry's first year. We know your spectacles, your thin lips unsmiling for the portraitist.
We also know of your penchant for discovery.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Shall we begin with the wind?
In Chicago, your town, wind has a certain history. A nineteenth-century visitor, Albert Lea, knew that wind, and commented in the Freeborn County Standard: "Walk past the Masonic Temple or the Auditorium any day even though it may be perfectly calm elsewhere, and you will meet with a lively breeze at the base of the building that will compel you to put your hand to your hat."
He observed, too, "Chicago has been called the 'windie' city, the term being used metaphorically to make out that Chicagoans were braggarts."
He added, with a purpose, "As usual, people go to extremes in this thing also, and one can tell a stranger almost anything about Chicago today and feel that he believes it implicitly."
At the corner of Chicago and wind, the famous Drake Hotel will be found to catch on its abraded sides every lick and pellet of Chicago's breath: tatterdemalion shivers of spring; moist guff, in summer; autumn catarrh; in winter, fury and contempt (these ease apart, like melting ice, into sub-genres).
Fury and contempt: the city fathers have sometimes chosen to rig up ropes against these flaws of weather, along iced-in sidewalks, for us to grip as we pedestrians wobble into shops, hospitals, offices. They could do nothing less. Winter citizens of Chicago, otherwise how would you walk? While husbanding your mercantile heat, so sought by this wind? While filching, while filched, while fidgeting?
Wool won't do. Nor sable. Coat yourself in brick, in vinyl, in wainscoting, even in shantytown timber. Then just try to walk, you clanking Tin Woodsmen!
Miss your footing? You'll fall, for certain. And while you're down, the wind will knock all the wind out of you.
Mustaches freeze. Tears squeeze, and freeze. The hats all look like old horses.
My dear Miss Monroe,
My own time with wind in Chicago tells me something in particular. Wind in Chicago is often constant. Wind in Chicago is often vehement. Always it makes the cold more cold. But it is also singularly difficult.
For the wind in Chicago pushes at you from all directions, from all at the same moment. You cannot turn your back on it, you cannot look down your nose at it, you can't protect your eyes or nether parts from it. If you don't fight it, the wind will blow you down. So you fight it.
"The wind was very high," remembered a survivor of the great Chicago fire, which destroyed two thousand city acres in 1871. A third of Chicago's people were left homeless. Three hundred died, and with them perished eighteen thousand buildings, as well as countless private and public municipal records. Why? Because the wind blew up from the southwest, carrying the fire north and east from its origins, with a rocking speed compared to surf by witnesses.
Terrified of losing everything, some who fled rushed first to bury their possessions: family silver, a piano. The fire burned for an October night, before meeting the natural barrier of Lake Michigan and receiving rain. At its greatest, the wind reached a mere thirty miles an hour. But it was a singularly difficult wind.
You were ten.
You remembered "a confused jumble of shouting people and pushing teams [of horses hitched to vehicles]; and the air strangely full of an ashen dust, blinding and odorous in the gale that was still blowing."
Afterward, inspecting the ruins of your father's downtown law office, you found "his iron office safe, with a hole in it, slanted on piles of broken bricks."
The managing editor of the Chicago Evening Post described the new city created by the fire: "Pieces of iron, writhing in a thousand fantastic forms."
Historians say Chicago burned was a blank begging to be built again.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Chicago, post-fire, is the color of metal, for years to come. Metal is less flammable.
The number of days of gray skies in Chicago per annum can scarcely be counted.
If I added up the full amount each year of the leaden, the ashen, the bruised, the clouded, all lifted and pendant above, I would have the sum of at least several lives.
Gray gets reflected. The lake engages it. Air and there, they meet.
Carrying it, the gray, Chicagoans bear on their backs a load like iron with the metal screech of subways skidding along elevated tracks five storeys up.
When the gray is much too much, they go indoors. All of them.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Chicago, post-fire, is the color of ambition, for years to come.
I enjoy reading ambition in the Plan of Chicago (1909), a looming historic volume. It is the map of an ideal.
Never mind what I actually know about the city, earned and learned by wearing out my shoes and toes. Of course, Chicago can be a place--it often is--of extorted and befuddling boredom. It can be a place--it often is--of bullying bitterness.
But it is designed. Unlike New York, flung up to be flung down, visually Chicago has something big, sure, and clear to rest upon.
Call this a solid geometric sameness of the decidedly level ground. Call this an open excess of the lake. Call this a built-in turmoil of our days, trying to toss everything: that wind, of which I spoke before.
The page at large of the lake means we might well write on it, if we like, or simply dream our leisurely way into it. Or, look into it--and see ourselves, returned and returning. There can be no waves big enough to interrupt that pause. One thing I know: the lake won't send me to an end. I can't see through to it.
Wasn't it ending that we coveted, at length?
No. The end will find what it needs when it wants: me and myself alike.
And so, peruse a city's ambitious "plan" for itself.
I enjoy reading ambition in the Plan of Chicago because, in between the grand, sober, forefatherish pronouncements of its paragraphs, are pictures and photographs, laid in state to receive an eye. The Plan is civic and possessive, but it is also democratic, circa 1909. Someone blue drew this map, didn't they, for it is blue? And then another, followed by someone umber, purple, amber, prickly, somnolent, or scarlet? There are too many images for anyone to own.
I read from Chapter IV, which begins: "Chicago, on becoming a city, chose for its motto Urbs in horto--a city set in a garden. Such indeed it then was, with the opalescent waters of the Lake at its front, and on its three sides the boundless prairie carpeted with waving grass bedecked with brilliant wild flowers." Isn't this Oz-like? Should the cynics cough?
Yes, except the garden now, as then, is also steely.
The Plan reveals this quality, and other sharp objects. Highways are preponderant in it, "radiating" from town with the symmetry of monumental man-made chrysanthemums. Rendered in color, some of the highway graphics resemble in tone Chicago dune, a dense tawny warmth. The diagrams of roads look languorously urgent, like the life microscopic, once emerged.
But instead, what was formerly huge was really made to fit a book, nine inches by twelve-and-a-half: the Plan. City into garden into what-not? Shrink it down!
Regardless, every picture here calms a swarm. The 1909 Plan, reissued by the Princeton Architectural Press in 1993, was "commissioned by a group of Chicago's progressive businessmen who had hoped to rationalize, and thereby improve . . . ." Playgrounds were extremely important to its original coauthor, the architect Daniel Burnham.
All of Burnham's classrooms in the ideal city should "face south" and "have fireplaces for cheerfulness."
To Burnham, "The slum represents the failure of the city to protect its people."
He put faith in "the elliptical avenue."
He believed firmly in scope and scale: "Now, while it happens that the planning of a new city imposes straightness as a duty, and diagonals as a necessity, it is equally true that a virtue should be made of these hard-and-fast conditions. There is a true glory in mere length, in vistas longer than the eyes can reach . . . ."
I suppose that is part of what I see (and seek) in Miss Monroe's city, and in her magazine: a finite infinity of dares and flaws, the mud and snow and dunes and winds.
My dear Miss Monroe,
I find this finite infinity where you did, piecemeal and in part.
The old Fine Arts Building, for example, is where I find it, and where Poetry magazine in your time kept one office, among various others, along its course, hoisted high in the South Loop at 410 South Michigan Avenue, west of Grant Park and just down from the art museum.
Rising ten storeys in 1885, the Fine Arts Building was initially a headquarters for the Studebaker Corporation. After the company moved to Wabash Avenue, the music publisher Charles Curtiss leased space in it, in 1898. A renovation of the building prepared it for other new occupants: art teachers, violin repairmen, dance schools, literati, painters, sculptors, two theaters. This was meant to be a city (in a city) of art to come.
"To this day even its elevators continue to be operated by human operators," proclaimed David Swan in 2008, when he kept his office there.
There you kept your office, too. I have visited the remnants of it, a narrow waddling suite of "entre nous," giving glowing, good protection from the ransacking storm of the city's gray. It is sepia, but lively, too. Dark hallways prance with nearby do-re-mi's.
In the Fine Arts Building we have found the quarters of a literary agent, who stacks up mystery novels on the bookcase. We have found a photo studio for the best brides. We have found many painters, hunching solo. We have found steep ceilings and strong steam heat, spitting out in old-timey gloom. We have found the Boitsov School of Ballet. "Milwaukee eeeees village," Madame Boitsov once confided. "Ballet need BIG TOWN!"
It is hard. Art is mean. So is town.
Blown in from Michigan Avenue by the punching winds, we have time to adjust the straps of our winter boots, to disengage the Kleenexes. Our scarves seem to be gagging us.
You, Miss Monroe, must have been an activist.