My dear Miss Monroe,
With a covetous zeal, you valued the hate mail you received. For decades you stashed it all in a file, labeled "knocks." The knocks now bring stray, sundry dead readers back to life in oddly flamboyant, unguarded performances, as though the audience for American poetry surely could strike back.
Wrote one Walter Surrey in an undated letter to yourself: "I think, indeed I know, that there are poets in America, but I make the assertion that they knock in vain and will continue to knock in vain at the gate of Miss Harriet Monroe, in whose magazine from the beginning I challenge you to find . . . a single poem which can justly be called great when measured by the standards of literature, of beauty, of philosophic thought, and of originality."
No less than The Dial magazine seemed to agree with Mr. Surrey, calling your periodical "an impudent affront to the poetry loving public." [sic] In reply to The Dial's attack, an editorial in the Chicago Record Herald produced another: "If Poetry [magazine] is no good, just step on the insect; don't try to knock it out with a succession of body blows." [sic]
Sometimes, your knocks came from rather lofty place. On September 14, 1914, you received a knock from the dean of a Chicago cathedral, the Reverend Walter Taylor Summer: "My dear Miss Monroe-- . . . How two-thirds of the poetry that has appeared [in Poetry] could be reckoned as poetry or as containing anything particularly inspiring, is beyond me. As I can't adapt myself to it, and it only irritates me to think I can't, I am going to escape making myself unhappy trying to understand it--by ceasing to read it."
The Reverend added, "I really cannot stand . . . Ezra Pound." Pound, who then served as Poetry's foreign editor, often couldn't stand the magazine, either.
On August 9, 1915, you received a knock from S. R. Floraunce, cashier of the Webster County Bank in Red Cloud, Nebraska: "Gentlemen: I am in receipt of the August number of Poetry, and herewith enclose draft of .15 [cents] to pay for same. When I subscribed I was under the impression that the magazine was devoted to poetry, but find I was mistaken. Please pardon the error, and drop my name from your list."
Would-be writers also raged, producing knocks. A poet writing from St. Louis in 1913 told you off: "Dear Madam. I have all of my manuscript back from you. Why inclose the duping, brassy lie? You neither 'thank' me, nor did the Mss have any 'consideration' at your hands, nor have you the slightest 'regret' that you 'cannot make use of it.' The lie is paltry. I shall send you no more, not because my poems are not meritorious, for they compare more than favorably with ANYTHING you have published." [sic]
At an undated moment, Miss Monroe was to console herself: "This magazine brings the poets together, so that they criticize and train each other, compare notes, and keep free of closet moodiness."
Still, many of the attacks on this editor never made it into your "knocks" file, for they came from the very poets whose work you published in, or at times rejected from, the magazine. You filed this hate mail, charily, under each author's name. Your official wars crowd such files. Indeed, your warfare may well be what best defines you as an editor.
Some of your editorial wars were high-minded; others were less so. More than a few were provoked by your determination to make internal cuts in poems that you hoped to publish, cuts made--if necesary--above a poet's protests, or even without the poet's knowledge. Wallace Stevens, whose poem, "Sunday Morning," was much amended by the editor, responded with a wry diplomacy to the lash of your pencil by writing in a letter to yourself, "You are an encouraging person, if ever there was one, and I am grateful to you not only for that, but because, in addition, you give me an opportunity to do what you want, if I can. I shall try."
Ezra Pound put it less sweetly in 1930, when he commented, "Miss Monroe has occasionally mutilated a work by excisions." Of course, Pound himself was known for his editorial bravado in making cuts in the poems of other poets, sometimes without their knowledge or consent. Ironically, you considered Pound to be one of your main instructors in what you called a "salutary discipline" by which your "incrustations of habit and prejudice were ruthlessly swept away." You seemed to thrive on meaningful conflict.
In a letter to William Carlos Williams, with whom you sparred often about the matter of poetic revision, you wrote, "Perhaps it is inevitable that the editorial mind should grow stilted. If you see evidence of it in Poetry, 'Please punch my face in order to save my soul,' as Ezra says. I am very gratefully yours." In 1919 Williams wrote slyly to a friend, "Harriet Monroe and her folded diaper of a periodical is without any significance except as per cash paid for work."
Your plea to "punch my face" was not made casually. You sincerely courted combat, if in literary terms it struck you as important. To restore some measure of public palpability to American poetry, warfare evidently impressed you as a useful means and strategy.
But you also took war personally. As you wrote in an editorial in Poetry, "Next to making friends, the most thrilling experience of life is to make enemies." As you saw it, "the normally healthy person may accept" what you called "dagger scratches" as "tributes to his vitality."
My dear Miss Monroe,
The shared work of poet and editor is more often rumored or hidden than made public. But, for reasons best known to yourself, at sixty-five years of age you chose to share with the readers of Poetry your rather arduous work with Hart Crane, then aged twenty-seven, on his poem, "At Melville's Tomb."
Published in the October 1926 issue, well into your tenure as Poetry's founding editor, and untouched editorially by you, the poem was not Crane's only contribution to that number. For in the back pages, by mutual consent, also appeared the editorial corrrespondence about "At Melville's Tomb," dubbed as "A Discussion with Hart Crane." There, editor and writer found themselves in basic disagreement about the poem. To publish the debate was an idea of the editor.
If, as you candidly acknowledged, you could not quite grasp the manner or the meaning of Crane's poem while you read it, then you could take the unusual and paradoxical step of questioning the poem even while you published it. Most editors would not have done as you did: your decision could have exposed you to ridicule, undermining to an editor's purview and accrued authority.
Paradox in motive also characterized Crane in the encounter. For he need not have seized the opportunity you gave him to compose a substantial manifesto in response to you, thereby publicizing his very own editor's misgivings about his poetry. Instead, he could have scrawled but a few sentences, leaving well enough alone. Yet from the struggle he claimed, or tried to claim, a victory of rhetoric at Harriet's tomb.
His was an open letter of rejection to you.
My dear Miss Monroe,
The terms of your struggle with Hart Crane were clearly expressed by the editor in the four concise paragraphs of your initial salvo to Crane, published in Poetry.
You remarked, "Your ideas and rhythms interest me, and I am wondering by what process of reasoning you would justify this poem's succession of champion mixed metaphors, of which you must be conscious. The packed line should pack its phrases in orderly relation, it seems to me, in a manner tending to clear confusion instead of making it worse confounded."
Crane's far more extensive and elaborate reply occupies eighteen long and abstract paragraphs, suggesting, "My poem may be elliptical and actually obscure in the ordering of its content, but . . . as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem."
You, Harriet, responded to Crane in five crisp paragraphs, observing: "No doubt our theories and ideals in the art differ more or less fundamentally, yet I would not deny to the poet the right to take certain of the liberties you claim. I think he can take as many as he succeeds with without mystifying his particular audience; for mystery is good, but not mystification."
Finally, you commented in a concluding note addressing Poetry's readers, "The editor would rather not have the last word, but as Mr. Crane contributes no further to the discussion, we must pass it on to our readers."
Not only the inclusion of the written editorial debate, but also the positioning of the Crane poem and the prose commentary, in primary and subordinate locales, respectively, suggests a complex interplay of editorial and literary motives, motives often neglected or ignored by critics and poets in the years to come. Your positioning of poem and commentary serves to jar fundamentally the expected context for reading poetry in periodicals.
The reason why it jars: conventionally, publication of a poem in a magazine heralds arrival, positively. But in this case, an editor allows herself to engage in a bout of adversaries more typically conducted from behind closed doors--and to it, she invites spectators. Indeed, by implication, Miss Monroe questions her decision to publish it.
By breaking with precedent in challenging your own editorial authority, you entice others to do the same. Surely, you invite readers to break with other precedents, and to ask other questions of poetry, also. Your point is to question, openly; to educate; and to learn. In fact, Pound's entreaty to you, when you'd first announced your intention to publish a magazine of poetry, may still have been resounding in your ears, fourteen years later: "Can you teach the American poet that poetry is an art, an art with a technique, with media, an art that must be in constant flux, a constant change of manner, if it is to live? Can you teach him . . . ?" [italics mine]
You were bound to teach, and you hoped to learn.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Regardless, your published editorial "discussion" with Hart Crane was anything but an inquisition. Had you hankered for one, you could have gone to pains, editorially, to make it happen. For example, you could have penned a lengthy attack on the poem, rather than merely questioning it, or you could have found editorial means of minimizing Crane's response to your questions. In the service of inquisition, you could have presented poem and commentary more prominently together, one directly after another, sharing virtually the same space in a self-contained section within the magazine. You could even have placed the poem with the commentary first in the issue's contents.
Instead, you placed the poem near other poems by other poets on page 25, and settled the editorial exchange with Crane on pages 34 through 41, following articles by other authors and preceding the book reviews that by tradition closed the issue. Your placement allowed readers to find the poem,and perhaps to read further until discovering, by chance, the commentary on it.
By placing the commentary in the back, the editor all but insured that it would not be read alone, without the poem. Therefore, the commentary probably couldn't discourage readers from reading "At Melville's Tomb." For Miss Monroe, the debate over the poem evidently took second place to the poem. Thanks to her, readers in 1926 could read Crane's poem without entering the debate; they might read the poem but never encounter the discussion, and thus decide the poem's merits by themselves.
Nonetheless, the poem, written in sixteen lines, took up much less space than the debate. Thus the commentary, in its own way, might appear unmissable--monumental, even--once noted by a reader who had passed on to the closing pages of Poetry. By contrast, in terms of that sheer bulk, the poem could appear dwarfed.
You might have chosen to postpone the commentary to a future issue if you had considered it largely incidental to the poem. The fact that you spent a significant portion of your limited editorial space on your two short letters to Crane and on his much longer letter to yourself suggests an editorial conviction in opening up debate to a larger public, though not to a public beyond reach of Poetry's immediate audience; to that degree, sensationalism was not your motive.
It seems important to remember that you were under no obligation to publish Crane, nor need you have published that poem in particular. As the magazine's founding editor, you made final editorial choices. (You went on to publish more poetry by Crane, after "At Melville's Tomb.") Moreover, you could have insisted on editorial changes in his poem as the condition for its publication; in many other cases, with many other writers, you did no less. (The Dial magazine's Marianne Moore did just so with Crane, in her editing of him, and he acquiesced to her.)
Yet you declined to impose your will in those ways on Crane. Instead, at your wish, the poem duly appeared in the magazine, and it appeared at a significant distance from the disputatious correspondence.
A few years before your death, you received a letter from Pound containing his valedictory decree on editing: "Good editing, as I see it, means the most effective presentation of the best of whatever is at hand." The "presentation" of the troublesome Crane poem seemed to be uppermost on your mind.
My dear Miss Monroe,
As you informed Poetry's public, which included Crane, in the published editorial exchange: "The editor would rather not have the last word, but as Mr. Crane contributes no further to the discussion, we must pass it on our readers."
Yet in fact, Crane labored mightily elsewhere to "have the last word" in other bits of hate mail penned by him, though not sent to you.
While he was busying himself with a formal reply to his nettlesome editor, one calculated to carry the ring of stoic artistic integrity, Crane was also sounding off, sub rosa, to a few of his sidekicks and allies, mustering an unofficial effort to intensify and broaden his rejection of you. Although you may have been seen as almost a peer by his cronies, Crane was their undisputed cohort, writing to them to recruit them for further attacks on "Aunt Harriet," as you were called by him.
On September 28, 1926, Crane wrote to the critic Kenneth Burke, "I'm not modest in saying that I think I come off very well with the woozy old spinster . . . If you have a thought militant enough to demand registration, on one side or t'other,--why don't you mask it in perfectly decent terminology and frighten the dear old wench . . . ." [italics mine]
As the appointed publicist of himself and his poetry, in what must have struck him as an odious career emergency, Crane evidently sought to swell his gang of one. He recognized the advantages of ushering Burke to his side. Perhaps less vulnerable to the charge of lugging a special interest into battle, a critic such as Burke might wage war more credibly than a fellow poet could. A critic might come to genuine aid of a poet, if he were to "mask" his "thought" in "perfectly decent terminology," as Crane advised.
Despite Crane's seeming confidence in the recruiting, a tension rises from his letter to Burke. The tension rises from the clash between Crane's assertion, on the one hand, of coming off "very well" in his epistolary struggle with Miss Monroe, and from his simultaneous effort, on the other hand, to downplay, debunk, and even deride the whole "squabble," as if he had not come off well at all, and could not banish his chagrin. "I'm . . . making the usual fool of myself," he declared.
To don the mask of critic, writing hate mail, may also have struck him as false. For, regardless of his sidelong taunts, Crane's ambivalence about the debate did show some respect for the seriousness of the issues raised. As he said to Burke, "The problem under the gavel is vital in modern art." If it were not, then why bother to beat Miss Monroe the editor back, at all? While Crane contested you with a poet's will, he resented doing it, too, because he felt that he had no choice. Why should a poet have to enter that fray, when the better fray of writing poems could have summoned him?
A poet should do it because, when the gavel "fell," we would hear it.
My dear Miss Monroe,
Hart Crane may not have supposed that an editor, traditionally silent, would prove audible over the long span. Yet even now, she can be heard. And so, it seems advisable to compare more closely Miss Monroe's campaign with his own on behalf of his poem, "At Melville's Tomb."
Unlike Crane, you did not enlist others in support of a chosen position--yours. Unlike Crane, you did not attempt self-vindication, but an inquiry, instead. Also unlike Crane, you did not present yourself as other than you really were or really meant. You wore no "mask."
Perhaps you were forthrightly candid to a fault. You never pandered to him or to your shared audience. In all of these ways, and in others, you showed a degree of independence that seemed to irk him deeply, possibly because it was not so very different in nature or impulse from the independence of the poet himself, when writing his poems.
Your independence affronted Crane because he had assumed that he owned independence as a poet's prerogative. Your editorial creativity served to rival his poetic ingenuity. The division of labor between editor and poet was unexpectedly called into question by the shared magnitude of their imaginative ambition. This left Crane feeling thoroughly uneasy.
While he perceived you as a small-minded attacker of integral poetic values--and of himself--this was far from the role you had decided to assume. But it was simpler, perhaps, for him to think of you as he did. For then he wouldn't have to take you at your word. He wouldn't need to concede anything to you. He could scoff at an inferior, or toady trickily, without losing face.
The complexity of your probable motives passed him by completely, in part because Crane was preoccupied with an urgent need to defend his creed and his career in public. Perhaps most bizarre, he never paused to ponder your desire to publish the poem in the first place. In his mind, were you obliged to do so? Could there have been no other worthy editorial decision? Was his position--and was his poetry--the only kind possible?
To Crane, was he infallible? Was his poem?
My dear Miss Monroe,
If you preferred not not have "the last word" during the editorial exchange with Crane in the pages of Poetry magazine, that was because you wrote in deference to the poet, whose words had given you reason to write in the first place.
Likewise, your words had given Crane reason to write his extensive prose reply to you. Some thanks are owed to an editor for provoking him to reject her.
You only published "At Melville's Tomb." You didn't claim to own it. Only the poet could do that.
Still, if Crane were to "own" not just the poem but also the version of poetic virtue ascribed by him to it, then his methods might have seemed to serve him well, in his reply to you: he could reject your creed; explain his own; explain the poem, thus answering some of your questions; ally himself protectively with elder master poets and critics who lay beyond your reach, presumably, if not beyond his; disingenuously "apologize" for any of his possible failings or excesses; claim the high ground; exclude you from it.
Crane did all of these things in his rebuttal of what he regarded as your gratuitous onslaught. The inconsistencies apparent in his shifting critical strategies suggest, as does "At Melville's Tomb" itself, the innately paradoxical mind of this poet.
To announce in his rebuttal of Miss Monroe that "I don't wish to enter here defense of the particular symbols employed in my own poem," and then to do exactly that, may seem only a minor example of his characteristically unconscious self-contradictions. But to assert that "pure sensibility" can take full responsibility for the "apparent illogic" guiding a poem's mixed (or unmixed) metaphors is another case, for Crane never bothered in his reply to define or offer details of what he meant by such a "sensibility." Left marooned on the page, the phrase "pure sensibility" is one to which he clung in order to justify himself and to oust you from his elected coterie of ranking poets and critics.
More inconsistencies hover in his epistolary essay. When Crane cited but two metaphors from the poetry of William Blake and T. S. Eliot to verify and vindicate his belief that ellipticality is not a bad quality in a poem, he ignored--blindly, or knowingly--the stated foundation of your objections to his own use of metaphor, which was for you the main issue. Whether clear, unclear, or elliptical, one metaphor at a time did not perturb you. What perturbed you about his poem was its virtual governance by a succession of mixed metaphors that in your view served to constrict it, because they diverted the poem's energy--and the reader's attention--from the emotional truth of the poem to its formal methods, namely that of "telescop[ing] three or four images together by mental leaps." The impact of Crane's strategy upon you felt, as you conceded, quite uncomfortable: "I must admit that these phrases in your poem are for me too elliptical to produce any effect but mystification (this until you explained them)."
Ironically, you did not want to have to ask a poet to explain a poem. To yourself as a poet, this would have seemed arrogantly intrusive; why force anyone else to do it? A poem might imply, suggest, describe, declare, et cetera; and if so, it would never need to explain itself.
To that limited extent, you saw eye to eye with Crane, although he didn't realize it. He merely noticed an editor spitefully conducting an uncalled-for skirmish, uncalled-for because if you rebuffed his method, then why should you publish his poem? And if you published his poem, then why should you attack its merits?
Still, what Crane and his sympathizers failed to understand about Miss Monroe above all was her underlying motive: to educate.
My dear Miss Monroe,
To educate, in your view, meant asking questions about the confusions that beset you about the poetry. Otherwise, you would not have asked those questions.
But to educate also meant opening up debate to each and every bystander--to your valiant regular subscribers, to your sometime browsers, and to your unsung prospective readers who had not yet read a single issue of Poetry. What held these motley audiences together? Only Miss Monroe, and the writing in her magazine. As you knew only too well from reading and replying to the "knocks" of your incoming hate mail, almost nothing could unite your readers or their tastes, except perhaps for a tentative curiosity about what they might next find in Poetry.
You wouldn't second-guess them, yet by asking questions unlikely to be asked by the meek or by the elite, you could give them all something to think about.
But of course, not everyone wanted to think, whether about poetry, Poetry, Harriet Monroe, or Hart Crane.
My dear Miss Monroe,
In the complicated lives of Crane and his editor's intertwined yet partly obfuscated texts, the most paradoxical and extreme critical intercession of them all cannot fail to hold the eye.
In her now little-known 1927 New York Herald Tribune review of Crane's book, White Buildings, the American poet Genevieve Taggard focused on the fate of four Hart Crane quatrains in particular.
Wrote Taggard in her review of his book, "I have followed [Crane's] work for several years and read, besides, his controversy with Harriet Monroe over a poem included in this volume, 'At Melville's Tomb,' where Mr. Crane made the mistake of explaining in prose what his verse was trying to do."
Taggard continued, "However sincere his explanation [in Poetry], it was a mistake to make it. No poem should require such a defense."
She confessed, "And although I got more out of the poem, and glimpsed for the thousandth of a second several times, what the poem's beauty was, I was able after reading to see that he had not done on the page of the poem what he had said he had done in the prose controversy [in Poetry]."
She insisted, "If Crane had stuck to his guns and refused to aid his reader [in Poetry], his reader in time might have aided him by inventing a real poem to uphold this overtone."
The unabashed Taggard next unveiled her own "attempt at a rainbow of overtone," as she put it, to "uphold" his own. That is, she prooceeded to rewrite (and, she believed, to improve) Crane's poem in the pages of the newspaper, for the benefit of New York City readers, of a Sunday afternoon.
Crane is not on record as having read, remarked upon, or rejected Taggard's published rewriting of his poem. Yet he certainly could have read it and remarked, and rejected. Did his friends, of the time? His foes?
What did you think, Aunt Harriet?
Nor does the long critical literature on Crane seem to take note of the respectfully insolent Taggard's novel intervention in the fairly tumultuous life of this poem. Along the way, she also managed to reject his editor, while making full use of Miss Monroe's editing. Likewise, Taggard both affirmed and rejected Hart Crane.
Equally unknown are the reactions of ordinary New York City newspaper browsers of the Herald Tribune's motley Sunday book-review section. Did readers sidle away from scanning the paper's celebration of William Bake, in that issue?
Or did they choose to squint instead at Taggard's poetic liberites--or to enter into an internecine literary brawl?
My dear Miss Monroe,
Poetry magazine iis best known for the writers discovered there, not for the poets whose work has been rejected over the years.
But most poets, of course, never were or will be published in Poetry, no matter how much they may wish for it. The pressure of all their unfulfilled longing, decades old, feels present to me, like a sort of haunting.
As if responding to that pressure in her own day, Mrs. Alice Corbin Henderson, one of your trusted editorial deputies, wrote an editorial in the July 1916 issue of Poetry entitled "The Rejection Slip." She herself had sent many such slips their doleful way.
Henderson begins by observing in her editorial that would-be poets outnumber by far the magazine's actual subscribers. Then, she complains that the poets harass Poetry's editors with too much verse--and with the unrealistic expectation that every submission arriving in Chicago will somehow deserve and inspire a detailed letter from the editors, even if (especially if) the poetry has been declined for publication.
Mrs. Henderson objects to that pesky attitude. Alluding to the abilities of any conscientious editor, she declares in the editorial, "One can not turn oneself into a human machine; the capacity even of an inhuman machine is limited." (I imagine you, Harriet, nodding nearby in moral agreement.) Then Alice notes, "What sort of rejection slip would not be brutal and dispiriting?" It is difficult, even now, to answer her justly.
She defends the magazine's editorial policies and standards: "All the verse that has come into this office up-to-date has been extremely important, and the editors have not been willing to relegate [reading] this to underlings or to outside readers." (As other magazines did and have continued to do.)
Finally, as if giving voice to a frustration of rich vintage, she claims, "The rejection slip hurts the editor far more than it does the poet. The poet knows that he is a genius; and the editor still hopes to discover that he is in each manuscript examined. The editor has a hundred sorrows for the poet's one."
To me her reasoning seems fatuous; the primary pain of editors is almost sure to lie elsewhere. But for writers, nearly any rejection of their work--and especially the latest--has to cause consternation, whether it takes shape as a rejection slip or as a published book review condemning them.
Miss Monroe, you were very much at home with airing your critical judgment in public. Decidedly averse to a newspaper review of his work written by yourself in 1907, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright had his say about the proper uses of criticism in a voluminous letter written to you on his magnificent personal stationery. The letter infuriated you with its somber tirade, inked on tawny, lofty sheets now peacefully folded.
"Personally," Wright wrote, "I am hungry for the honest, genuine criticism that searches the soul of the thing and sifts its form. Praise," he suggested, "isn't needed especially. There is enough of that, such as it is, but we all need intelligent painstaking inquiry leading into the nature of the proposition to be characterized before with airy grace the subject is lightly touched up with House Beautiful English for the mob." [sic]
Miss Monroe's pencil draft of the answer she sent to Wright is fervent, brisk, and piercing, as though little electrified tines were riding on the backs on her sentences. He was so impressed by your pugilism that he later tried to mollify you.
Though equally vivid in temperament, the far more tactful Marianne Moore wrote as a young woman to you in a lusciously balanced hand, rounded and swirling, yet upright. Her notepaper in 1915 was gray-green, soft, and durable, a spiritual Japanese fabric drenched in mild aqua. (Years later, when she was living in Brooklyn, her handwriting seems to have lost its flavorful pulse, and she favored plain bond. While still erect, the handwriting thinned--the swing had left it.)
Anyhow, the intent and politic Moore, writing to Miss Monroe, left no doubt about her gratitude for any editorial scrap of advice her poems might receive at the time. She was twenty-seven.
To you she wrote, "Printed slips are enigmatic things and I thank you for your criticism of my poems. I shall try to profit from it."