I. Harriet Monroe and the Beginnings of Poetry
II. The “Foreign Correspondent” and “A. C. H.”: Ezra Pound — Alice Corbin Henderson
III. Literary Debates and Controversies: Imagism — Vers Libre — The Jepson Attack — Poetry Prizes — Poems of War and Peace
IV. Poetry‘s Poets: T. S. Eliot — Robert Frost — Vachel Lindsay — Amy Lowell — Carl Sandburg — Wallace Stevens — William Carlos Williams — W. B. Yeats
V. Even More of Poetry‘s Poets: Conrad Aiken — Maxwell Bodenheim — Joseph Campbell — Skipwith Cannell — Emanuel Carnevali — Padraic Colum — Grace Hazard Conkling — Hilda Conkling — Babette Deutsch — Arthur Davison Ficke — John Gould Fletcher — F. S. Flint — Florence Kiper Frank — Jun Fujita — Wilfrid Wilson Gibson — Ben Hecht — Helen Hoyt [Lyman] — James Joyce — [Alfred] Joyce Kilmer — Alfred Kreymborg — Harold Monro — Ernest Rhys — Lola Ridge — Isaac Rosenberg — James Stephens — Ajan Syrian — Sara Teasdale — Eunice Tietjens — Allen Upward — Arthur Waley — John Hall Wheelock — (Arthur) Yvor Winters — Edith Wyatt — Elinor Wylie
VI. Closing — Endnotes — Works Cited
“POETRY may not be a grand enough portal, and the lamps that light it may burn dim in drifting winds; but until a nobler one is built it should stand, and its little lights should show the way as they can.”—Harriet Monroe, Poetry 11.1, p. 41
For fifteen cents in 1912, Chicago, you could have purchased one pound of New Evaporated Crawford Peaches or Stollwerck’s Premium Chocolate 1/2 pound cake, some of Madame Ise’bell’s Face Powder or an oak-framed picture of Cupid (awake or asleep), 1/4 lb box of “Effervescing Sodium Phosphate” (used to make granular salt) or, granted you were willing to put up with “slight defects, never noticeable,” some infants’ cashmere stockings.1 If, however, you were a bit more culturally adventurous and wanted to take a look at a small periodical boasting “the best poems now written in English,” your fifteen cents could have bought you Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (Poetry 1.2 L; hereafter abbreviated as P). In addition to Poetry‘s original poems and fresh reviews, in addition to its sharp, witty editorials and the prospect of participating in transatlantic cultural conversations, you would have received the satisfaction that you were helping to “promote in every possible way the interests of the art.” An endeavor of so wide a scope, however, depended upon the promise that a poetic culture, complementing the magazine, could find its place amid the French plumed hats, personal player-pianos, and electric motorcars of the day.
Monroe understood, as many of her contemporaries—poets and editors included—failed to understand, that she needed to find the right balance between promoting what was new, strange, and outside the mainstream and maintaining a reading public, especially for one of the first American journals devoted entirely to poetry. This meant, in effect, creating a poetic marketplace, one that would be curious, open-minded, and patient with new work. To have great poets there must be great audiences too—this quotation from Whitman appeared in each issue of Poetry. It promised readers who might otherwise be wary of modernist verse that there was a continuous lineage from the poetic past even in work that seemed to dismiss it. It also assured readers not only that they were important, but, moreover, that they, too, were part of this very new and very thrilling literary adventure.
While hundreds of such “little magazines” appeared in major cities across the country during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the likelihood that such a venture would survive was bleak. The magazine would need a top-notch editorial staff, a constant stream of new poetic offerings, an innovative editorial policy, and, above all, a marketplace to fund its product—whether through philanthropic contributions, a readership that would subscribe to its pages, or, and this was quickly becoming a new phenomenon, its own advertising pages. Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, published out of Cass Street in Chicago, seemed to have all of the above. Its outstanding editorial staff included the in-house poets Alice Corbin Henderson and Eunice Tietjens (another poet-contributor, Edith Wyatt, served on the advisory board), and the impeccably frustrating, intellectually luminous, one-of-a-kind advocate of everything modernist—the “foreign correspondent,” Ezra Pound.
“Fears have been expressed by a number of friendly critics that POETRY may become a house of refuge for minor poets,” Harriet Monroe wrote in the second issue of her journal (P 1.2 62). She wanted to make it clear that being “minor” was acceptable. Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Burns, Poe and Whitman were all minor poets (in their day), she reminded her critics, as were “Drayton, Lovelace, Herrick, and many another delicate lyrist of the anthologies . . . [who] created little masterpieces, not great ones” (P 1.2 63-64). Poetry—or what Monroe called “a Cinderella corner in the ashes” of popular magazines (P 1.1 27)—would be a home for poets big and small, for poets who sought to change the heavens and those who just wanted to provide glimpses into modern life. Monroe’s famous “Open Door” policy, which applied equally to poets and critics, outlined this view:
may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free of entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions. (P 1.2 64)
Monroe’s editorial policies attracted modernist poets considered both major and minor. She published T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” H. D.’s “Hermes of the Ways,” and Ezra Pound’s first Cantos. She published W. B. Yeats, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, D. H. Lawrence, Rupert Brooke, and Marianne Moore. She published important, canonical poets slowly being forgotten and wonderfully innovative poets quickly being remembered: Vachel Lindsay, John Gould Fletcher, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Maxwell Bodenheim, Sara Teasdale, and the young Elinor Wylie. Monroe devoted issues to the American Indian and the African American, to the Southern bard and the Western cowboy; she even made room in her pages for poetry by children.
The high quality of Poetry‘s verse was not the only factor defining its relationship to modernist culture. Many of the aesthetic debates of the time—those surrounding vers libre, imagism, the role of a national poetics, the scope and function of a poetic audience—happened in the pages of Poetry. The book reviews and critical essays, often written by the magazine’s own staff—including Monroe, Alice Corbin Henderson, Edith Wyatt, and others—vigorously defended modernist experimentation as it argued for a greater role of poetry in the art world and beyond.
The March 1919 issue of Poetry (13.6) shows us how all of these elements—poetry, essays, reviews, advertisements, national and international concerns—come together to form an undivided whole. The installment had an assortment of verse sounds: Ezra Pound, who was on his way out of Cass Street, alongside William Carlos Williams, who was on his way back in, beside Morris Bishop and Robert M. McAlmon who were fighting overseas with the American Expeditionary Force. Pound’s (mis)translation, “Poems from the Propertius Series,” begins with his typically allusive and elusive “Shades of Callimachus, Coan Ghosts of Philetas, / It is in your grove I would walk—” (291). William Carlos Williams’s “Complete Destruction” provides an altogether different phrasal rhythm. It is tragic but more whimsical, and its minutiae leads to a metaphysical speculation on mortality:
It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
Then took her box
And set match to it
In the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
Earth and fire
Died by the cold.
Morris Bishop’s “With the A.E.F,” written in France, and Robert M. McAlmon’s “Volplanetor,” written upon his return from the war, supply entirely different senses of transient being. “In the clairvoyance of a midnight waking / I took an inventory of myself . . . / Scraps of old songs, fragments of childish fears, / And blowing memories of unlit years,” begins Bishop’s intriguingly heartfelt verse (308). McAlmon’s sounds are jarring, his language off-kilter: “Insoluble in high air’s quiescency / My plane, on earth a sophist, naively / Reconnoitres promiscuously” (320).
Following these selections is “Comment: A Radical-Conservative,” Harriet Monroe’s reply to Max Eastman’s preface “American Ideals of Poetry” published in his collection Colors of Life (Knopf). Ads for Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Poetry had appeared in earlier issues of Poetry. Now, with Eastman’s “indictment of free verse as necessarily unrespectful of the line and therefore unstructural and formless” (323), Monroe felt the need to respond. “Would Hamlet’s soliloquy or Antony’s death-speech,” she posed, “be any the less poetry if written out as prose, or if scrambled into irregular lines? Is Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech any the less essentially poetry, in rhythm, structure, and spiritual motive, because it happens to be printed with line-divisions?” (324-25). The whole back-and-forth seems ironic given that Eastman was a social reformer, editor of socialist journals, and a friend and translator of Leon Trotsky. Avant-garde modernist literature, unfortunately, just never made it onto his program.
The book reviews in this issue include the poet Vachel Lindsay’s assessment of Yanks: A Book of A. E. F. Verse, “written in the American language” and published by The Stars and Stripes, “the doughboy paper published in France”: “full of . . . the sense of Tomorrow. . . . [Yanks] records the moods of the private soldier, and absolutely refuses to be heroic, though some of the amateur versifiers are now dead on the field” (329). Alfred Kreymborg, the important modernist editor, provides a review of Lola Ridge’s The Ghetto and Other Poems. Ridge, a Marxist and feminist, was born in Ireland and then spent time in Australia before moving to the United States. Kreymborg called her “a revolutionist . . . [who] will be charged with lunacy, incendiarism, nihilism,” and he insisted that her collection about the New York Jewish community would subject the average American gentlefolk “to the most uncompromising excoriation I’ve ever seen between two American bookboards” (336). Following Alice Corbin Henderson’s review of John Gould Fletcher—“Masks that only imitate other masks eventually become lifeless,” because they “do not move us, either as art or life” (340)—Helen Birch’s review of Maxwell Bodenheim—“not a negligible book” (342)—and Monroe’s review of a posthumously published A. C. Swinburne collection, appears “a letter from one of the contributors, a First Lieutenant in the 330th Infantry,” Morris Bishop, who wrote that he was “reveling in your bunch of back numbers as in a first taste of chocolate after months deprived of luxuries” (346).
By providing glimpses of very real war experiences alongside aesthetic debates, the March 1919 issue of Poetry seems almost violently to be showing how social relations are no longer part of one integrated whole. I would argue that Monroe’s journal illustrates the reverse—that the whole is no longer anything but an expression of its integrated parts. Monroe was wary of aestheticizing war, but she also knew that its rhetoric, like the rhetoric of poetry, was something that was to be bought and sold. The closing pages of the March 1919 issue, containing the advertising pages, show how all of these parts come together. An ad for Horlick’s Original Malted Milk—to be used “FOR SAFETY and CONVENIENCE”—is squeezed in between ads for Monroe’s and Henderson’s verse anthology The New Poetry, bound volumes of Poetry, and The Morality of Women and Love and Ethics by the Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key. Another ad for Monroe’s journal at the end of the issue reminds readers that “A subscription to POETRY is the best way of paying interest on your huge debt to the great poets of the past.” Poetry not only links together war and verse, the milk and morality of the present, but also ties everything back to the shared speculations of a cultural past.
What follows here are five sections devoted to various aspects of Poetry magazine. The first section recounts the magazine’s fascinating beginnings and the individual who made it all possible—Harriet Monroe. The second section follows two essential personalities, each with an essential hand in the journal’s development and each with a differing idea as to what constituted a modernist journal: Ezra Pound and the often-overlooked Alice Corbin Henderson. The third section details some of the controversies that found their way into the pages of this journal. Finally, the fourth and fifth sections consider some of the poems and poets—both major and minor—who appeared in the journal. The assumption that modernist poets stood free from their immediate cultural influences led critics and readers for a time to see modernism as just an assemblage of anthologized names. Modernism was more than just its names. Even the modernist poets we consider “major” today were very much the cultural outgrowth of modernism, and each was a part of a complicated network of politics, poetics, and personalities.
Both the marketing and form of Poetry are important to how we have come to conceive of cultural production in the beginning of the twentieth century. Recent critical work by Suzanne W. Churchill, Adam McKible, Robert Scholes, Sean Latham and others, termed “periodical studies,” hopes to resituate modernism in its culture of “little magazines.”2 Modernism was never just “The Waste Land,” Ulysses, and Mrs. Dalloway—despite what our syllabi may claim. It was dynamic; it was something that was traded; it was a vortex without being Vorticism. And it was something that happened not in museums but atop editorial tables and among characters, big and small. Periodical studies attempts to recover the little magazine not just as the container of important modernist work, but as its specific medium. The cultural institution of the little magazine—not the authors who can be picked out of it—defined modernism. Poetic artworks were not to be dreamed up overnight and left on the kitchen counter for publication and posterity. They were mediated extensively: sent out (often to unknown readers), rejected, rewritten, and re-sent; they were published next to other poets, next to advertisements, next to essays about what ought to constitute a modern poetics. Most importantly, perhaps, modernism was something that was bought and sold—which is one of the biggest paradoxes for an artistic movement that (at least initially, in its critical context) has shied away from its own historical frameworks.
“Modern culture,” Sean Latham and Robert Scholes write, “was created from a still-obscure alchemy of commercial and aesthetic impulses and processes” (521).3 Their work is part of a project to “rescu[e] modernism from modernists like Ezra Pound, who claimed a purity of intention and achievement for modern literature that is belied by the actual relationship between commerce and culture that made modernism what it was and is revealed so powerfully in the magazines, where the relationship between art and advertising is inescapable” (Scholes, “Afterword” 225). Looking at the advertisements printed in the back pages of Poetry, we may begin to see how everything was coming together. The June 1913 issue (2.3), for example, promotes The Enjoyment of Poetry by Max Eastman, the journal Art—“All the twaddle that through the centuries has twined itself about that simple three-letter word has not sufficed to strangle it”—published by M. O’Brien & Son, and The Art of Versification by J. Berg Esenwein and Mary Eleanor Roberts—“Clear and progressive in arrangement. . . . Indispensable to every writer of verse” (see Scholes 220-21 for a reading of this text). An ad from the Ralph Fletcher Seymour Company—a publisher proposing to print limited editions of books—appeared next to a subscription offer from Poetry (which “has introduced to America the great Bengal poet, Rabindra Nath Tagore; and it will soon publish a group of translations from the Chinese by Allen Upward”). Other advertisements in the coming months and years would promote modernist anthologies and other periodicals (such as Blast and The Egoist), offers of engagements for lectures, and even dogs for poets. Taken together, the ads show the disparity of a commercial literary culture as well as its burgeoning global reach.
Harriet Monroe understood the new marketplace for poetry by accepting a notion that few practitioners and fewer readers wanted to believe—that art was indeed property. She sold poetry, she sold advertising space, and she sold Chicago—all were part of the same project of advertising modernism. Her “idealistic yet pragmatic modernism,” according to John Timberman Newcomb, “admitted no inherent contradiction between the creation of poetry and the creation of a market for poetry” (102). Defending her decision to give out poetry prizes against those claims that it would debase the art, Monroe betrays a little of her panache, a little of her metaphoric gift, and a little of her Midwestern zeal. As luck would have it, her note on “The Question of Prizes” appears in the alchemic cauldron of Poetry (just before Carl Sandburg’s review of Ezra Pound):
Why should a poet be “utterly lacking in self-respect” if he accepts a fellowship, when so many painters and architects, scholars and scientists, have stood up nobly under the infliction? . . . “Miss Monroe led us to suppose she was building a cathedral—it now appears that it was a Woolworth Building,” says one critic. A cathedral, did I? Modern cathedrals are second-rate—mere imitations. I would rather build a first-rate sky-scraper! But not the Woolworth Building—the Monadnock perhaps. (P 7.5 246-49)
The best account of the first decade of Poetry is still Ellen Williams’s Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance (hereafter referenced as EW), to which my introduction owes a great deal. Unfairly or not, scholars have critiqued Williams for her tendency to marginalize Monroe’s enormous influence on modernism. Despite her detailed description of Monroe’s arduous labor and effectiveness as a poet and reader, Williams seems to subordinate Monroe’s work to that of others: “This seems the most important contribution of Harriet Monroe as editor of Poetry: she made Pound available, spread his influence abroad, but was not swallowed up by him” (EW 288). Such pronouncements unfortunately echo those rather unforgiving assertions of Humphrey Carpenter in his usually excellent biography of Pound. Consider his dismissive “Harriet Monroe was a fifty-two-year-old spinster, the daughter of a lawyer. For nearly a quarter of a century she had been writing bland, mediocre verse which she was now having difficulty in getting published, so she decided to start her own poetry magazine” (Carpenter 184-85).
More recently, scholars such as Newcomb, Jayne Marek, and Ann Massa have re-discovered Monroe’s pivotal presence at the center of modernist poetics, while also contesting the gender politics behind past critiques. I am indebted to their work as well. “[I]t is long past time to discard the image of Harriet Monroe as a ‘literary spinster,’” Newcomb argues, “and to accept her instead as a pioneer of an American avant-garde modernism that needs to be seen . . . as strikingly different from its European contemporaries” (88). Such projects not only recover the contributions of female editors of the small magazine, but also elevate such editors to their rightful place in modernism. “The denigration and dismissal of Monroe throughout much of modern literary history,” Marek writes, “constitutes a telling example of the fate of many women; reexamining her contributions to that history requires a change of perspective that allows her to be seen on her own terms” (Women 26). While the recovery of the female voice within the male-dominated confines of a manufactured modernism is a recent project, the implicit gendering and sexism of modernist institutions is not a new discovery. Monroe herself attacked the sexism of, for one, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which encouraged only “those creations of art which proceed from sober and earnest males” (“Sobriety and Earnestness” P 3.4 144).
The goal of my introduction is to recast literary modernism so we see it not just as a conglomeration of poems that can be pulled out of a magazine, but also as a space of contrasting poetics, personalities, and politics. In what follows, I recount many of the remarkable controversies and anecdotes that shed light on the happenings of the era. Because so many of Poetry‘s stories have been told already (in much better words than I can piece together), I spend most of my energy looking closely at some of the poems and essays that appear on its pages. My hope is that one poem or poet will catch hold of your interest, sending you along to that “first-rate sky-scraper”—the Modernist Journal Project’s (MJP’s) archive—where, with any bit of luck, you’ll become as lost as I have been.
The red and black cover of the first issue of Poetry featured a half-rolled parchment and quill sitting atop a bed of laurel branches, the artist and publisher’s name Ralph F. Seymour hiding in the corner. Above it, the cost and volume number were listed. Below it, a white Pegasus was flying into the red P of Poetry. Red and black weavings adorned the side, bracketing the name and contents. The cover advertised poems by Arthur Davison Ficke, William Vaughan Moody, Ezra Pound, Emilia Stuart Lorimer, Helen Dudley, and Grace Hazard Conkling, and it promised an Editorial Comment (or comments) and Notes and Announcements. The very bottom broadcast what would become a famous office address and delivery terminal for all poems modern—543 Cass Street, Chicago. Looking closely, above the month and Romanized year, we would see that the smallest type on the cover was the words: “Copyright 1912 by Harriet Monroe. All rights reserved.” While the copyrighting of work wasn’t new, it was undeniably important. It acknowledged that poetry was indeed property—specifically that of the publisher—and that the poetic marketplace didn’t exist only with the Pegasus in an imaginary world in the clouds, but also in the very real, very dirty world of capitalist finance. Monroe knew all about the necessity of safeguarding her poets’ efforts and her own. And this is where the story of Poetrygoes back a few years.
Monroe had been commissioned to compose a poem that would be read at the dedicatory ceremony of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892. Her poem, “The Columbian Ode,” was a paean to Chicago, America, and universal brotherhood. Monroe was “determined to use no classic images” in her celebration of the “splendors and triumphs of modern civilization and an era of universal peace” (Monroe A Poet’s Life 121; hereafter cited as APL; Monroe’s Poets & Their Art and “The Free-Verse Movement in America” will be referenced as P&TA and FVMA, respectively).
Lo, clan on clan,
The embattled nations gather to be one,
Clasp hands as brothers on Columbia’s shield,
Upraise her banner to the shining sun.
Along her sacred shore
One heart, one song, one dream—
Men shall be free forevermore,
And love shall be law supreme. (121-22)
Monroe was paid $1000 for the contribution. More importantly, she insisted that the rights to it remain with her. Covering the World’s Fair, the New York World had reprinted this poem without permission. In what would become a rather important court case, Monroe successfully argued that her copyright had been infringed, and she won punitive damages “sufficient to punish the trespasser and prevent a repetition of the offense” (APL 142). The ruling was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, and, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the World had no further recourse. Monroe had sued and successfully won $5000. Add that to the $1000 she already received for her poem from the World’s Fair dedication committee and this was not a bad deal for a poem in 1892. The whole episode, what Ann Massa calls “a highly effective public relations exercise for Monroe” in which she “acquired an image and a role in the world of American poetry,” provided the future editor with the funds and the institutional backing necessary to promote poetry domestically (Columbian 61). The court case also helped set the grounds for what would become an essential principle of intellectual property, and it ensured that the publication rights of the laboring poet ought to be protected.
Born in 1860 to Henry S. Monroe, “a lawyer prominent in the affairs of the very new and rapidly growing city” of Chicago, Monroe had a natural gift for all things literary (EW 8). She frequently published essays, poetry, and criticism in the New York Sun, the Atlantic, the Chicago Evening Post, and the Chicago Tribune—where, for a time, she was the art critic (EW 9). When she started Poetry, she was fifty-two years old. “[W]hat was Chicago then as an inspiration to the muse?” Edgar Lee Masters wrote to Monroe (EW 9). Masters was not entirely correct to imply that Chicago lacked culture, for there were numerous art societies, patrons, galleries, music halls, and theaters; architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and John Root (Monroe’s brother-in-law) made a home there. The problem wasn’t that there was no market for art, but that there was no market for poetry. “Poetry alone,” Monroe wrote in her 1912 grievance list, “has no powerful friends” (qtd. in EW 10). Years later, recollecting the situation in her autobiography, Monroe explained:
The Art Institute, with the arts which it officially represented and encouraged, was backed by a group of the most powerful and wealthy men and women in the city. . . . Their efficient and excellent work was inspired by enthusiasm, by faith in the value of the arts in the nation’s culture. . . . But . . . why was there nothing done for poets, the most unappreciated and ill-paid artists in the world? One reason, manifestly, was that a poem cannot be exhibited and bought and possessed by some private or public collector in a manner or a painting or statue. Another reason was the common desecration of the art by prosy teachers in colleges. (APL 241-42)
Poetry wasn’t much talked about and, when it was, it was misunderstood. In order to fill the cultural void of the masses, Monroe believed that poetry would have to become more democratic. Her long list of grievances concluded this way: “In short, the vast English-speaking world says to its poets: ‘Silence.’” How, then, to un-silence not just individual voices, but the entire prospects of a generation?
“Gradually,” Monroe writes, “I became convinced that something must be done; and since nobody else was doing anything it might be ‘up on me’ to try to stir up the sluggish situation” (APL 242). As Ann Massa writes, “Chicago had a reputation as the graveyard of little magazines. There appeared to be a scant supply of good new poetry and less demand” (Columbian 51). The success of Poetry depended upon Monroe being able to figure a national culture both internationally and locally, and she soon learned how. Poetry became a national magazine, seeking verse from America’s differing geographical spaces and various ethnic groups. It became an international magazine, introducing American poets to audiences abroad, and introducing British, Irish, and French poets, as well as poets from other countries and continents to audiences back home. “The American metropolitan newspaper prints cable dispatches about postimpressionists, futurists, secessionists and other radicals in painting, sculpture and music, but so far as its editors and readers are concerned, French poetry might have died with Victor Hugo, and English with Tennyson, or at most Swinburne,” Monroe argued (P 1.1 32). Her journal would rectify this. And, just as significantly, Poetry became a local magazine, putting many Chicago poets—such as Carl Sandburg and his “Chicago” poem—on the map. Advertising the manufacturing center of the Midwest meant advertising its culture, and Monroe wanted poetry to receive its due as an important part of that culture. “We feel that the magazine is the most important aesthetic advertisement Chicago ever had,” Monroe wrote. “We are doing the same kind of work for the city which is done by the Art Institute, the Orchestral Association, the Chicago Grand opera co., the two endowed theaters, etc. Indeed our work is of more far-reaching influence, as poetry travels more easily than any other art” (draft of a letter to Howard Elting; qtd. in Newcomb 92).
Monroe describes the early years of her journal in the essay “These Five Years” (P 11.1 33-41). She recounts that, at the suggestion of Hobart C. Chatfield-Taylor (later on the advisory board of Poetry), she sought 100 patrons to commit $50 a year for five years to fund the first critical years of the magazine. “[A]lready a figure of some note in the city,” connected to its people and culture, Massa notes, Monroe “was able to sell her sponsors two products: poetry and herself” (Columbian 52). She got 108 pledges. With a patience and boldness indispensable for her upcoming career, Monroe thrust her way into the homes of some of the most important artistic benefactors of her city. “Her list of guarantors reads like a social register of Chicago in the teens of this century,” writes Joseph Parisi, the associate editor of Poetry since 1976 (218). During the summer of 1912, Monroe “spent many hours at the public library reading not only recent books by the better poets, but also all the verse in American and English magazines of the previous five years” (APL 251). She then wrote to many of them, sending along her plans for a journal and the “poets’ circular” she had written the spring before (APL 251).
The responses and encouragement she received, from both poets and critics, were overwhelming. In the first four months alone, Monroe published the experimental verse of Ezra Pound, Joseph Campbell, Richard Aldington, William Butler Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore (the year before he was given the Nobel Prize), Vachel Lindsay, and Hilda Doolittle. “If modern music could make room for Debussy and Stravinsky and even Jazz,” Monroe reasoned, “modern poetry should be able to listen with an open mind to Ezra Pound and H. D. and Richard Aldington, and whomever might try still more adventurous experiments, even though they should ride roughshod over long-accepted precepts and prejudices” (FVMA 694). “At the head of this group” of modernist experimental poets, Monroe wrote,
was Ezra Pound, a man who, whatever one may think of his poetry, was born a great teacher, born to be the leader of a school. An inquiring and provocative mind is his, never content with the conventionally accepted thing, always searching beneath surfaces and appearances, always violently rejecting the lifeless, the over-ornate, the stilted, the merely formal. An inspiring influence this poet has been, unfailing in the courage of his convictions; leading others, not necessarily to agree with him, but to examine their own foundations and standards. (694-95)
Poetry’s advisory board, whose sole duty was pretty much voting on prizes, included Henry Blake Fuller, who wrote The Cliff Dwellers, Edith Wyatt, and H. C. Chatfield-Taylor. Alice Corbin Henderson screened submissions and Eunice Tietjens, later an assistant editor, was part of the office staff. Subsequent assistant editors included Helen Hoyt, Emanuel Carnevali, and Marion Strobel. Ezra Pound was the “foreign correspondent,” a position briefly assumed by Richard Aldington when Pound resigned. Penelope Niven describes the mood of the Poetry office as “emblematic of Harriet Monroe’s gentility and enterprise”:
The spacious front room of a renovated mansion on Chicago’s Near North Side accommodated two desks borrowed from her landlord and patron James Whedon; some comfortable wicker chairs and a Wilton carpet loaned by her sister; and her own antique French colored-marble clock which sat on the white marble mantel under a gilt-framed mirror. (236)
For Monroe, the space was “lively”; it developed an “atmosphere,” and “[p]oets came from far and near as to a kind of headquarters of the art. . . . Indeed, the place rapidly filled up with books, until the Poetry library became, as it still is, a problem demanding space and shelving” (APL 317-19). Lively, she meant, not in the overwhelmingly busy sense of a newspaper office but rather in terms of an intellectual energy. According to Joseph Parisi, “[t]he atmosphere at Cass and Erie streets was more like that of a club than an editorial, let alone business, office. Poets and friends . . . were continually dropping by to read manuscripts, argue, listen to chief assistant Alice Corbin Henderson’s witty remarks, and to eat Miss Monroe’s candy and the impromptu meals she whipped up over a bonfire out back” (Parisi 220).
The second issue of Poetry contained the famous Monroe doctrine—the “Open Door” statement, which importantly set the quality of work ahead of everything else. The inaugural issue contained the equally significant essay “The Motive of the Magazine.” In it, Monroe offered not just her intentions but also a general defense of what had become a long-forgotten genre:
Poetry alone, of all the fine arts, has been left to shift for herself in a world unaware of its immediate and desperate need of her, a world whose great deeds, whose triumphs over matter, over the wilderness, over racial enmities and distances, require her ever-living voice to give them glory and glamour. . . . Poetry has been left to herself and blamed for inefficiency, a process as unreasonable as blaming the desert for barrenness. This art, like every other, is not a miracle of direct creation, but a reciprocal relation between the artist and his public. The people must do their part if the poet is to tell their story to the future; they must cultivate and irrigate the soil if the desert is to blossom as the rose. (P 1.1 26-27)
To do her part in irrigating this wasteland, Monroe proposed a test which was “to be quality alone; all forms, whether narrative, dramatic or lyric.” She offered “a place of refuge, a green isle in the sea, where Beauty may plant her gardens, and Truth, austere revealer of joy and sorrow, of hidden delights and despairs, may follow her brave quest unafraid” (28). Monroe then got Walt Whitman (metaphorically speaking) to help promote the part of the people. “If you believe with Whitman that ‘the topmost proof of a race is its own born poetry,’” Monroe wrote—“subscribe.”
Edith Wyatt’s essay in the same issue, “On the Reading of Poetry,” went a little further, defending both the art and its new manifestations. To many, she argued, “poetry may concern herself only with a limited number of subjects to be presented in a predetermined and conventional manner and form. To such readers the word ‘form’ means usually only a repeated literary effect: and they do not understand that every ‘form’ was in its first and best use an originality” (24). To borrow a metaphor from Wyatt, the walls that Poetry would build around literary art would not be so exclusive. “The hospitality of this hall,” Wyatt maintained,
will have been a genuine source of happiness if somehow it tells the visitors, either while they are here, or after they have gone to other places, what a delight it is to enjoy a poem, to realize it, to live in the vivid dream it evokes, to hark to its music, to listen to the special magic grace of its own style and composition, and to know that this special grace will say as deeply as some revealing hour with a friend one loves, something nothing else can say—something which is life itself sung in free sympathy beyond the bars of time and space. (25)
A poet in her own right, Monroe was often caught between the modern sounds of her city and the call of the American wild. The openness Monroe admired in the varied American landscape helps explain her “Open Door” policy toward poets. Like Whitman, whom she evokes in each issue of her magazine, Monroe felt that America was a parataxis of its many diverse sounds. Her “Mountain Song” shows such an affinity:
Wide flaming pinions veil the West—
Ah, shall I find? and shall I know?
My feet are bound upon the Quest—
Over the Great Divide I go. (P 6.5 220)
In locating a particularly American aesthetic, Monroe needed to balance the rapidly-developing urban landscapes with an American mythological heritage that was decidedly outdoors. Indeed, as Newcomb argues, “Monroe’s magazine challenged the prevailing notion that poetry had no business in urban-industrial modernity” (86), and, yet, as Robin G. Schulze maintains, “Monroe’s notions of modernist verse were rooted in her imaginative confrontation with the American land” (50). Newcomb and Schulze stress different aspects of Monroe’s modernity, but at the center of each stands a common question. As Schulze puts it, “[h]ow might the American poet retain a defining relationship with American nature while reimagining nature as a viable subject of modernity?” (49-50). Many of Monroe’s own articles in Poetry “are filled with calls for poets to throw off their bondage to European forms, go back to nature, and create some new, large, masterful verse out of their confrontations with the land” (Schulze 59-60).
Schulze turns to “To the Wilderness”—where Monroe wants American poets to “bring the art ‘back to nature’” (P 10.5 263)—and “The Great Renewal”—where Monroe argues that artists “need the great renewal from Mother Earth who bore them” (P 12.6 321). According to Schulze, such articles do a lot to explain Monroe’s poetic tendencies, for example, her love of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg who composed like “the educated sons of pioneers” (P 12.6 322; qtd. in Schulze 60), and her aversion to the verse of T. S. Eliot, which “seemed to her the hyper-urbane musings of one who had never in his life been outside” (Schulze 60-61).
Monroe frequently published poets and essays that she knew would bring controversy. While she certainly had her own preferences, she was open to the opinions of others, but that did not stop her own pen from defending her methods. Her “The New Beauty” attacks those who are “pathetically ingenuous in their intellectual attitude” of living in “an Elizabethan manor-house or a vine-clad Victorian cottage. This is true even of certain ones who assert their modernism by rhyming of slums and strikes, or by moralizing in choppy odes, or in choppier prose mistaken for vers libre, upon some social or political problem of the day” (P 2.1 22). When these comments angered some critics, she attacked tradition itself, arguing that it “ceases to be of use the moment its walls are strong enough to break the butterfly’s wing” (P 2.2 67). Monroe liked passionate intensity (perhaps not as much as Pound), and she reveled in being the center of the new American renaissance. Her essays put poetry in the news. An essay in May, 1914 began: “Next to making friends, the most thrilling experience of life is to make enemies” (P 4.2 61).
Ezra Pound, one of Monroe’s most thrilling acquaintances, was also one of her most persistent enemies. His essay “Small Magazines,” a belittling soubriquet for the “little magazine” of modernism, aggressively targets Monroe, especially so in its underhanded compliments:
In 1911 Miss Monroe and her backers recognized that verse, to be of any intellectual value, could not be selected merely on the basis of its immediate earning capacity. This idea was not new, but it was not at that moment functioning vigorously in other editorial offices.
I don’t know of any other constructive idea that is directly traceable to the Chicago office. . . .
Miss Monroe has occasionally mutilated a work by excisions and has occasionally failed to see the unity of a longer work and given it in fragments.
Nevertheless, she has done valuable service by reason of the purity of her intentions. She meant to provide a place where unknown poets could be printed; she has done so. Where new ideas and forms could be tried, she has done so. She has provided a meal ticket when the meal ticket was badly needed. (691-92)
Monroe helped poets when she could. But she wasn’t a “meal ticket” and wasn’t a cook. Too often, Monroe is ignored for what she was—the cultural pulse at the center of modernism who had a sense not only of the scope and possibilities of modernist verse but also of all dimensions of American culture. “[M]ore than any American poet of her generation,” according to Newcomb, she “combined an interest in experimental verse forms, a progressive idealism about the social benefits of poetry, and a pragmatic understanding of poets’ work as intellectual property with economic as well as aesthetic functions” (103).
It is good to see that recent critics have embraced Monroe’s role in modernism, especially given that Ezra Pound’s masculine ideology, confused for too long with modernism itself, would dismiss the work of others, specifically that of women and editors—two identities Monroe embodied. Jayne Marek’s important recovery of women’s modernism takes Pound to task for his expectation that “editors (and women) . . . act according to certain roles helpful to literary men, roles in which either editors or women would provide money and encouragement for male writers, appreciation for men’s critical and creative activity, and labor for the tasks of publication” (Women 168). Similarly, as Newcomb argues, Pound “simultaneously demonized and feminized genteel culture, situating the ideal little magazine into heroic male opposition against the forces of rank commercialism and closet conventionality embodied by women such as Monroe who presumed to claim a key role in American intellectual life” (Newcomb 87). While it is important to consider Monroe and Pound together, we should note that they don’t fit neatly into any binaries of modernism. Even though most critics like to stress their differences, and even though Pound, at his worst, would refer to Poetry as “Harriet’s miserable rag” (qtd. in Sutton 138), the two would agree more often than not.
It is unfair to its various editors, contributors, and readers to claim that the early years of Poetry were made possible by three figures, but, if one had to point them out, they would be Monroe, Ezra Pound, and Alice Corbin Henderson. Monroe had to balance Pound’s unmatched enthusiasm with his ever forceful carping about everything. “They were two strong people who were devoted to the cause of poetry but saw poetry in very different ways” (Scholes, “Ezra” 5). Whether Pound’s part in the process was greater or less than he believed, it was still considerable. Monroe liked Pound because he “stood with his back to the wall, and struck out blindly with clenched fists in a fierce impulse to fight” (APL 290). By contrast, Monroe had a good, albeit somewhat uneasy relationship with Henderson, an integral part of Cass Street, despite the lack of public credit Monroe gave her. Their arguments, in Monroe’s words, “never quite brought us to blows or bloodshed”; she and Henderson “made a strong team” (APL 318).
Before launching her magazine, Monroe wrote to Ezra Pound, then in London. Pound had already acquainted himself with the Poet’s Club (T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint), the Rhymers’ Club (W. B. Yeats, Ernest Rhys, Arthur Symons), various other club-less writers (such as Ford Madox Hueffer, H. G. Wells, Henry James), and a crowd of editors, namely A. R. Orage who, as editor of the New Age, had just offered Pound a regular column, and Elkin Mathews (who ended up publishing some of Pound’s earliest verse). It was Mathews, in fact, who introduced Monroe to the poetry of Ezra Pound.
Hoping to secure early submissions for her new magazine, Monroe had sent out a circular expressing her aims to various poets on the international scene. Pound, one of them, was enthusiastic. In his letter of response, he offered his own suggestions for an editorial policy: “We support American poets—preferably the young ones who have a serious determination to produce master-work. We import only such stuff as is better than that produced at home. The best foreign stuff, the stuff well above mediocrity, or the experiments that seem serious, and seriously and sanely directed towards the broadening and development of the Art of Poetry” (Paige 45, letter dated 9/24/12; qtd. in Carpenter 214). Pound’s suggestions would eventually get louder, turning into insistences and then into demands. He sought a “universal” or a “Weltlitteratur standard” (Paige 62, 11/7/12), and according to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, he “decided on the spot that Poetry would be the wagon on which American poets would roll across the plains into their Renaissance” (184).
“You may announce,” Pound wrote to Monroe, “that for the present such of my work as appears in America . . . will appear exclusively in your magazine” (Paige 9f; qtd. in Carpenter 185). More significantly than his own verse, perhaps, was Pound’s offer, later in the same letter, of his editorial eye and literary connections. “I do see nearly everyone that matters,” he made sure to mention, adding that he would keep “the magazine in touch with whatever is most dynamic in artistic thought, either here or in Paris.” Within no time at all, Pound became the self-appointed foreign correspondent of Poetry magazine, resolved to carry out his “American Risorgimento.”
The first poem Pound published in Monroe’s magazine was in the inaugural issue; it was titled “To Whistler, American.”4 There, the aesthetic differences between Pound and Monroe quickly became apparent. Compared to Monroe, who saw the demand of poetry everywhere because it was always part of the general culture, Pound believed that people had to be hauled in to its cause. He writes,
for us, I mean,
Who bear the brunt of our America
And try to wrench her impulse into art. (P 1.1 7)
The coup de grace comes at the end:
You and Abe Lincoln from that mass of dolts
Show us there’s chance at least of winning through.
Calling the American public a “mass of dolts” might not have been the most tactful move, but Pound wasn’t known for tact. Even through the phrase provoked “emphatic resentment,” Monroe called Pound’s words “bitter medicine which possibly we need” (P 1.5 168). As David A. Moody writes, she “found a way of defending her foreign correspondent from the indignant critics, while both keeping her distance from his braggadocio, and shrewdly inviting sympathy for him as a young poet who had suffered neglect” (215). Pound was a firebrand. “Print me on asbestos,” he wrote, “let them revile me, and perhaps some few will get mad enough to tell the truth in plain passionate language” (qtd. in EW 36). At heart, Monroe believed that Pound “was the best critic living . . . and that his acid touch on weak spots was as fearsomely enlightening as a clinic” (APL 266; Moody 215). Her confidence in him would soon pay off.
Pound sent poets and poems along, often doing so with his own “improvements.” He sent Monroe poems by Richard Aldington, Hilda Doolittle, W. B. Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore (Pound’s “sensation of the winter” [Carpenter 186]), and shortly thereafter D. H. Lawrence and Charles Vildrac. He introduced Skipwith Cannell, John Gould Fletcher, William Carlos Williams, and the “VURRY Amur’k’n” Robert Frost (Letters 49). His own verse wasn’t too shabby either; it was always fresh, always inimitable, and always controversial. That was part of his point. “I don’t know that America is ready to be diverted by the ultra-modern, ultra-effete tenuity of Contemporania,” he wrote about his collection published in Poetry in April, 1913 (Paige 11; qtd. in Carpenter 189). It began:
Will people accept them?
(i.e. these songs).
As a timorous wench from a centaur
(or a centurian),
Already they flee, howling in terror . . . (P 2.1 1)
While Monroe wouldn’t flee, she would often howl back at Pound, protesting some of his more contentious phrases. Pound responded, “Morte de Christo! . . . You can’t expect modern work to even look in the direction of Greek drama until we can again treat actual things in a simple and direct manner” (Paige 18; Carpenter 190).
Readers will be familiar with the final poem in the collection, “In a Station of the Metro.” The original version printed in Poetry, however, is not the one often found in anthologies. Here, it appears a good deal below Pound’s previous poem, almost as if it were its own island. The title is pushed across the page and the words are separated by typographical indentations. Seeing the poem differently makes us hear it differently. The broken phrases mimic breaths—those taken by the poet or those taken by the speaker unhurried by the rush of the crowd.
In November, Poetry published parts of Pound’s Lustra, where David A. Moody finds Pound “assum[ing] the new role of sardonic critic of his society’s way of life” (206). In May, 1914, Pound published, uncredited, the Noh drama Nishikigi (by Zeami Motokiyo), after discovering it in one of Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks. The translations continued, Pound sending in his “Exile’s Letter” “from the Chinese of Rihaku (Li Po),”“the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Araga” (P 5.6 258-61). It has many of the same rhythms of Pound’s more famous rendering of a Li Po poem, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” The “Exile’s Letter” ends with the soft:
And there is no end of talking—
There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
And I send it a thousand miles, thinking. (P 5.6 261)
That spring, Poetry also issued Pound’s “Provincia Deserta,” and the following winter it printed his Sordello-esque “Near Périgord,” both based upon his travels in the south of France. Pound wrote often about the contemporary poetry scene or, rather, what he wanted it to be. He wrote about Parisian poets, about Joyce, about Yeats, and about A. C. Swinburne (3.1, 8.1, 9.3, 11.6). In return, Monroe sent Pound $100 every now and then (Carpenter 195).
At the end of 1913, barely a year after giving himself the title and position of foreign correspondent, Ezra Pound’s six-year process of resignation began. In November of that year, he asked Ford Madox Hueffer to take over (Carpenter 211; Moody 216-17). Knowing that this replacement would cause more trouble than it was worth, Hueffer told Monroe of Pound’s plans and asked her to ask him to reconsider the resignation. Pound, in turn, was “willing to reconsider . . . pending a general improvement of the magazine,” as he would “not have [his] name associated with it unless it does improve” (Paige 27). Upset with the direction of Poetry, Pound castigated Monroe, her poets, and her public: “Good god! Isn’t there one of them that can write natural speech without copying clichés out of every Eighteenth Century poet still in the public libraries?” (Paige 15). His aesthetic fascism was beginning to become apparent in his refutation of any sense of a popular ethos: “we artists who have been so long the despised are about to take over control” (qtd. in Carpenter 199).
Too often, Pound aired his grievances in public. In his essay “The Audience” in the October 1914 issue of Poetry, Pound took a stab at the heart of Monroe’s project—the value of a readership, as encapsulated by the Whitman quotation. According to Pound, “The artist is not dependent on the multitude of his listeners. Humanity is the rich effluvium, it is the waste and the manure and the soil, and from it grows the tree of the arts. . . . [T]his rabble, this multitude—does not create the great artist. They are aimless and drifting without him. They dare not inspect their own souls” (P 5.1 29-30). While the growing gap between Monroe and Pound couldn’t be ignored, it ought to have been understood for what it was—“a kind of lovers’ quarrel,” as Moody declares, “a quarrel of two people in love with poetry and committed to putting it at the heart of things, but two people with such very different tastes, talents, and temperaments. Their collaboration in Poetry and their quarreling, or at least Pound’s making a war of it, would continue for several years” (217). Pound, however, could never meet anyone halfway.
The exclusivity promised to Monroe was soon forgotten, as Pound began sending poems to Smart Set, founded by William d’Alton Mann (H. L. Mencken became editor after 1914), because its editor had “the good sense to divide all of the poets . . . into two classes: Yeats and I in one class, and everybody else in the other” (Carpenter 207).5 Bankrolled personally by John Quinn—attorney and benefactor of many modernist causes (Conrad, Eliot, Joyce)—Pound quickly became the foreign editor of the Little Review. In the opening pages of its May 1917 issue, Pound explained himself: “Poetry has done numerous things to which I could never have given my personal sanction, and which could not have occurred in any magazine which had constituted itself my ‘instrument.’ Poetry has shown an unflagging courtesy to a lot of old fools and fogies whom I should have told to go to hell tout pleinement and bonnement” (qtd. in EW 205).
Monroe took things in stride, claiming that the Little Review was now “under the dictatorship of Ezra Pound” (qtd. in Carpenter 312). She was rightfully angry that Pound ever believed Poetry was his “organ,” and, besides, that he would air his grievances in public. Yet she was also grateful for both his personal help over the years and his service to the cause. “At first I was simply furious,” she wrote, “but I am honestly too sorry for E.P. to continue mad. He ruins his own case continually and perpetually. . . . but I am very sensible of the many benefits conferred by E.P. not only upon Poetry editorially, but upon poetry at large . . . he has helped criticism and has made for less sentimentality and softness” (qtd. in EW 208). It was Alice Corbin Henderson who, perhaps, put it best: “Isn’t he a great idiot?” (qtd. in EW 208). While 1917, according to Ellen Williams, marked the “effective end of Pound’s foreign correspondence” (214), it wasn’t until a few years later that things became official.
Poetry‘s June, July, and August issues of 1917 saw in print what would become the first three of Pound’s fifty-plus-year epic adventure—the Cantos. Harriet Monroe wrote to Henderson, wondering if Pound was “petering out, that he must meander so among dead and foreign poets? has he nothing more of his own to say?” (Nadel 194n). Taken literally, Monroe’s criticism would become an honest question for Pound and his contemporaries—how to refigure a literary tradition when one is always walking among the dead. This cyclic patterning of history, mixing old and new would soon become Pound’s modernist poetic.
The Cantos are worth much consideration in their original form. Although he would revise them, they provide the first glimpses of how Pound would treat literary history as a series of epic fragments. Robert Browning, unnamed and later moved to Canto 2, opens the meditation as it first appears in Poetry. The “Nekyia” episode of the Odyssey, which would eventually make up Canto 1, here closes Canto 3:
Uncatalogued Andreas Divus,
Gave him in Latin, 1538 in my edition, the rest uncertain,
Caught up in his cadence, word and syllable:
“Down to the ships we went, set mast and sail,
Black keel and beasts for bloody sacrifice,
Weeping we went.”
I’ve Strained my ear for –ensa, -ombra, and –ensa
And cracked my wit on delicate canzoni—
Here’s but rough meaning:
“And then went down to the ship, set keel to breakers,
Forth on the godly sea. . . .” (P 10.5 250-1)
Very significantly, we get the sense early on that the momentary experience of the verse depends on more than the verse itself. Canto 3 already contains the reference to Andreas Divus, who translated an edition of the Odyssey—the edition that Pound had on his shelf. Why Divus makes his way into Pound’s loose translation becomes very important for understanding Pound’s poetic method. As Humphrey Carpenter reminds us, Pound was, in effect, conjuring Divus just as Homer was conjuring Odysseus, just as Odysseus was conjuring the dead. Like Elpenor, Pound’s Divus could be sent to the underworld but could not be erased. It was through Divus that Pound’s encounter with Homer, with literary history itself, was mediated. It wasn’t only that the specific translation (which itself contained an interesting error) mattered, but moreover that the cycles of literary culture were themselves material:
Lie quiet, Divus.
In Officina Wechli, Paris,
M. D. three X’s, Eight, with Aldus on the Frogs. . . . (254)
The published page—with its date of 1538 written out as MDXXXVIII (or as Pound’s doctor xxx 8) beside an insignia containing an image of the Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius (who printed Aristophanes’ Frogs and invented italic type among other things)—was suddenly part of the long story of Odysseus trying to get home. We wouldn’t call Pound a reader-response theorist, but his attention to the experience of reading material texts cannot be ignored, notwithstanding his many pronouncements to the contrary. Such is the case (pace Pound) of reading these Cantos for the first time in Poetry. The Cantos follow Mary Carolyn Davies’s “A Girl’s Songs” and precede Alice Corbin Henderson’s note on “Cowboy Songs and Ballads”—each a part of its immediate materialist culture, and each, now, a part of Pound’s initial reception . . . despite some ghostly echoes of protestation. Lie quiet.
The final straw for Pound in his relationship with Monroe and Poetry Magazine came in the spring of 1919. In March of that year, Monroe published four of the twelve translations of the set Homage to Sextus Propertius, which Pound had sent her; the collection had tested her, and, as she claimed, would have tested her censors’ good will. A month later, Monroe published “Pegasus Impounded,” a devastating storm leveled at Pound by Professor William Gardner Hale of the University of Chicago. The title is a double pun, and one that presumably takes issue not only with Pound but with Monroe’s journal as well, the “Pegasus” (Poetry‘s logo) which has been im-Pound-ed. Hale wrote that he had found sixty errors—humorous ones, careless ones—which called into question the accuracy of Pound’s translations and pretty much belied the poet’s knowledge of Latin. “If Pound were a professor of Latin, there would be nothing left for him but suicide,” Hale wrote, adding, “I do not counsel this. But I beg him to lay aside the mask of erudition” (P 14.1 55).
Left without much public recourse, the generally hearty Pound wrote to Monroe: “Cat–piss and porcupines! The thing is no more a translation than my ‘Altaforte’ is a translation, or than Fitzgerald’s Omar is a translation” (letter dated 4/14/1919; EW 254; Moody 354). The letter was signed “In final commiseration.” After six months of no further correspondence from Pound, Monroe took this “final commiseration” as a resignation. Always the diplomat and sincerely grateful for his efforts over the years, Monroe wrote to Pound on the first of November with “unfailing gratitude for all that you did to help the magazine during those difficult first years, and deep regret that we have had to come to a parting of the ways. I cordially hope that you will continue to contribute to Poetry, and that poems finer than you have ever written—which is saying a great deal—may be yours next year and the years after” (qtd. in EW, 258-59). Some words, perhaps, were due from Pound in return for his editor who took “the Art of Poetry seriously” (Paige 43). As far as we know, he didn’t respond.
Another figure at the center of Poetry‘s poetry was Alice Corbin Henderson, poet, critic, and reader of the highest rank. She joined the magazine as an Associate Editor early on and remained with it after she moved to Santa Fe in the spring of 1916 because of tuberculosis. Even after resigning as an editor in 1922, she still contributed poetry and essays for the next decade. She was involved in the local arts culture of the Southwest, supporting various artists and writers, and co-edited Monroe’s anthology The New Poetry (Macmillan, 1917). Although Monroe called Henderson “the one fit person available to assist in my project” (APL 286), she often downplayed Henderson’s influence in the office and her impact on modernist production. It is clear from Ezra Pound’s letters, though, and from material in the Poetry collection at the University of Chicago just how important Henderson was to her contemporaries.
The centrality of Henderson to Monroe’s project cannot be overstated. John Gould Fletcher noted that “without her influence Miss Monroe’s paper might have been . . . narrower in its scope and less epoch-making in its effect” (Fletcher 197; qtd. in Nadel xvi). And, as Jayne Marek writes, “[i]n those crucial early years of Poetry, it was often Henderson who set down distinct guidelines for an intrinsically American sensibility in poetry and criticism,” one which “would be both technically firm and variegated with the many colors of this country’s ethnic heritages” (“Alice” 16). None of the other associate editors, Ellen Williams claims, had Henderson’s “critical trenchancy, and none of them could challenge and debate Harriet Monroe as a peer” (265). And challenge Monroe Henderson did, making no bones about it: “Your sentence added to the Rupert Brooke item takes all the point out of the pointed brevity. . . . And, oh, Harriet, whatever you do—don’t speak of ‘boosting the art.’ It is dreadful. . . . And can’t you get something better than Massive above the Robert Frost item. . .” (qtd. in Marek Women 32).
Henderson would insist to Monroe that there was “absolutely no use in encouraging the poet who has one passable poem in a lot of bad ones. . . . Encourage him to keep on trying all you want to. But let him try outside the magazine” (Marek Women 33). Because Henderson didn’t want to abandon Monroe’s “Open Door” policy, but also wanted to maintain the journal’s higher standards, she often found herself playing the arbiter when things got rough, say, between Monroe and Pound.6 To Pound, she was “proof . . . that an American poet could incorporate an international aesthetic” (Nadel xviii).
It was Henderson—not Pound and not Monroe—who first realized the talents of Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. Sandburg respectfully accredited her as “the original ‘discoverer’ of the ‘Chicago Poems’, and the evocator of that title” (January 8, 1916; Mitgang 106-07). He did feel indebted to her for publishing his poetry, but he was also a fan—of her and her work. As he wrote to her in 1920, “sometimes I think how in the afterworld you and Wallace Stevens, writing better poetry than the mass of the listed, printing and performing poetry, will have your laugh” (Mitgang 177). When Sandburg finished his review of Pound (P 7.5), he immediately wrote to Henderson, expressing gratitude to her and calling her and Monroe “Modern Forces”:
I hope you enjoyed my Pound stuff if you’ve seen it. Harriet has it. I told her I have the notes for a similar treatise or public love letter on you and Harriet M. as Modern Forces. Coiled inside the graphite of my pencil also is a disquisition on your poetry and your personal urge for the brief and poignant. I am slaving now to get a boo into shape to send to Harcourt of Henry Holt and Co. [later of Harcourt and Brace] He wrote me on your suggestion. . . . (Mitgang 104; 12/15/1915)
And it wasn’t just Sandburg. Henderson was often a better reader than Monroe, more attuned to the sound that hadn’t yet been spoken and the phrase that hadn’t yet been thought. She admired Pound’s early experiment with the Cantos, calling them “very beautiful and . . . long[ing] for more to come.”“I’ve sent the mss. on to Harriet though I hated to give it up,” she wrote him, adding that he “explored worlds beyond worlds, and it’s a pleasure to follow” (February 17, 1917; qtd. in Nadel 190). Ira Nadel makes the significant point that she offered Pound “possibly the earliest direct criticism of the poem” (190). In return, Ezra Pound read, commented on, and published Henderson’s poetry.
Henderson’s essays are sharp, funny, and, like an Imagist poem, seemingly without an extraneous word. Her December 1912 piece, “A Perfect Return,” attacks American audiences who didn’t like Poe and Whitman until they became fashionable in Europe. She was an important figure in the debate on vers libre, defending it and her magazine’s editorial choices to her colleagues, competitors, and audiences. Two such articles—one early in the debate, one a little later—include “Poetic Prose and Vers Libre” (P 2.2), which stressed the importance of line divisions, and “Lazy Criticism” (P 9.3), which responded to The New Republic‘s continual condemnation of vers libre.
Her May 1916 review of Alfred Kreymborg’s Others anthology shows off a bit of her wit: “Replacing the outworn conventions of the I-am-bic school, we have now the I-am-it school of poetry . . . not to be confused with Les I’m-a’gists who are already out-classed and démodé” (“A New School of Poetry” P 8.2 103). With one stab, she poked fun at the metric formalists unwilling to change, the Imagists unwilling to provide more than a “gist” of anything, and the poetic ego of what couldn’t even be called an early brand of confessional verse—Kreymborg’s Others and all of its uses of “I.” The final wink comes at the expense of Wallace Stevens’s “Six Significant Landscapes,” which Henderson quotes in her review:
I measure myself
Against a tall tree.
I find that I am much taller
For I reach right up to the sun,
With my eye;
Henderson’s final word: “We regret to say that the printer announces that there are no more I’s in the font” (105). While certainly funny, the cut-and-paste review did little to explore Kreymborg’s collection—a rival to Monroe and Henderson’s own anthology—just as it did little to explain, say, Stevens’s “I” which (as above) is always mediated by its phonetic alter ego—the “eye.” Maxwell Bodenheim, a contributor to both Kreymborg and Monroe, was incensed, demanding that Poetry return his already-accepted poems: “The cheaply satirical article . . . in which a group of poets is ridiculed, in which the work of these poets is deliberately misquoted, and their names twisted and mutilated . . . will probably deprive you of the good will and friendship of the poets unjustly libeled, and of myself,” he wrote to Monroe, adding later that Kreymborg was “worth ten timid editors like you” (5/16/1916; qtd. in EW 193, 195-96).
Henderson’s publications in Poetry are noteworthy for their attention to the Southwest. Her cowboy ballad collection in November of 1917 ironically offers as much of the open silences of the land as its wondrous variety. Take “Old Timer,” for instance: “He had an air of open space / About him as he walked; / He was a priest of mystery, / Because he never talked” (P 11.2 85). What isn’t said—the mystery—and what isn’t hurried—speech—become parts of the landscape. The beautiful opening verse, “New Mexico Songs,” might be read as a response to both the vociferous Pound and the Emerald City of Monroe.
After the roar, after the fierce modern music
Of rivets and hammers and trams,
After the shout of the giant
Youthful and brawling and strong
Building the cities of men,
Here is the desert of silence,
Blinking and blind in the sun—
An old, old woman who mumbles her beads
And crumbles to stone. (P 11.2 82)
We might also read it as a response to Shelley’s colossal wreck “Ozymandias”—“After the roar” of the city, after the roar of modernism, what survives is an old, old woman falling back to the dry earth. The gendering is important: “the cities of men” are contrasted with the woman in the “desert of silence.” Will this distinction also remain after the rivets and hammers are gone?
Today, the many aesthetic debates surrounding the early years of Poetry seem trivial and relatively benign. Yet they weren’t so at the time. New poetic forms, rhythms, and schools of thought (such as vers libre and imagism), the role of a national poetics, and the scope and function of a poetic audience—these were all points of contention in the new cultural economy. There was a lot at stake in determining what type of poem would or should emerge alongside the scientific and technological wonders of the twentieth century, if indeed such “outside” forces mattered at all to poetry. The arguments waged in and around the pages of Poetry were bitter and funny, personal and illogical. Sometimes longtime friends would find themselves quarrelling, while poetic adversaries would find themselves caught in odd moments of agreement. Oftentimes, what was sought was not so much any sort of poetic “answer” but the publicity of the question itself.
Many of the earliest attacks on Monroe’s editorial choices came from The Dial: “We would not say a word in depreciation of any earnest effort to provoke the poetic spirit into activity, although the fruits of such an effort are likely to prove for the most part innutritive and insipid” (“The Case of Poetry” Dial 53 , 478; qtd. in Newcomb 96). Newcomb writes, “The Dial and its ilk saw the genre as an instrument of moral uplift, now menaced by an ultramodern lunatic fringe that Poetry was misguidedly sponsoring” (96). We should note that such condemnations came before The Dial was taken over by Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson—this was certainly not the same magazine that would print T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land a decade later.
A glance at the contents of the June 1916 issue of Poetry reveals some of the potential differences, conflicts, and bizarre aesthetic juxtapositions set forth by the magazine during this time. The issue began with Vachel Lindsay’s verse memorial to Booker T. Washington and contained work by the Kentucky poet Madison Cawein (whose “Waste Land” appeared in Poetry in January 1913), by the Chicago editor of a Lithuanian newspaper Kleofas Jurgelionis (who translated Macbeth into Lithuanian), and by the poet, critic, and famous anthologizer Louis Untermeyer. Toward the end of that issue, Harriet Monroe wrote of
a quaint old myth of a goblin who, blowing the fog out of his face, started a tempest which went careering around the world. Now and then I feel like that goblin. Is it possible that less than four years ago poetry was “the Cinderella of the arts”? Already a great wind is blowing her ashes away, and on the horizon are rolling dust-clouds which may conceal a coach and four—or is it an automobile?
For there must be some gift of the gods in the large and many-colored cloud of words which fills our eyes and ears. Never before was there so much talk about poetry in this western world, or so much precious print devoted to its schools and schisms. This is as it should be, no doubt. It may be evidence of that “poetic renaissance” which some of us profess already to be living in; or at least it may initiate that “great audience” which will be ready for the renaissance when it comes. A breach has been made, we may hope, in that stone wall of public apathy which tended to silence the singer ere he began. (P 8.3 140)
By 1916, many of the initial dust clouds had settled. And yet, that wouldn’t stop Monroe from looking back upon one of the more controversial first breaths of her poetic goblin—the movement known as Imagism.
The origins of Imagism are usually traced to the lectures of T. E. Hulme and the meetings of the “Poet’s Club” in London; for some, it goes back further to Arthur Symons and the Symbolists; and, for Ezra Pound, it can be found “in all the best poetry of the past” (qtd. in Nadel 4). The movement’s tenets are well-known, but they do little to explain the varying sounds and visions of the practitioners. These tenets—direct treatment of the thing, economy of language, and musical phrasing—are traced back to an F. S. Flint article in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, that was almost certainly written by Ezra Pound.7 Following this short note is a message from Pound himself, titled “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” which the author insisted Poetry print 50000000000 copies of and “insert . . . in each returned msss. for the next decade” (Letter to ACH, January 20, 1913; qtd. in Nadel 19). In this now famous treatise, Pound defines an “Image” as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (P 1.6 200). Not even Pound really knew what that meant. But that was fine by him, as it left each Imagiste free to explore the possibilities of the new movement. As Pound had written earlier, “To belong to a school does not in the least mean that one writes poetry to a theory” (P 1.4 126).
Poetry can lay claim to the first Imagist poems published in America—“ΧΟΡΙΚΟΣ” (or “Choricos”), “To a Greek Marble,” and “Au Vieux Jardin” by Richard Aldington—which all appeared in the second issue. These contributions shed the stiff iambic meter—say, that of Charles Hanson Towne’s poem which appears before the Aldington poems—adopting instead a phrasal rhythm attuned more to the sounds of a modern ear. Monroe asserted that the first of Aldington’s poems “holds its own . . . not only as one of the finest poems of the group, but as one of the finest of this century” (FVMA 695). It is ever so mournful; the speaker calls out with various apostrophes to Death, as if calling him by name could stave off “the illimitable quietude [which] / Comes gently upon us.” The poem plays upon the notion of “passing,” especially in its opening lines:
The ancient songs
Pass deathward mournfully.
Cold lips that sing no more, and withered wreaths,
Regretful eyes, and drooping breasts and wings—
Symbols of ancient song
Mournfully passing. (P 1.2 39)
Does “[p]ass deathward,” the poem asks, mean the inevitable passing away or the hopeful passing by the threat of death? Are the ancient songs to go by the wayside or are they passed along, revitalizing themselves with each passing age? The poem is almost a metaphor for Imagism itself, asking whether tradition will pass away or whether the new art will continue to pass the ancient songs along. In introducing both Aldington and Imagism, the issue’s editorial note tried to have it both ways:
Mr. Aldington is a young English poet, one of the “Imagistes,” a group of ardent Hellenists who are pursuing interesting experiments in vers libre; trying to attain in English certain subtleties of cadence of the kind which Mallarmé and his followers have studied in French. Mr. Aldington has published little as yet, and nothing in America. (65)
It turns out that the Hellenic nature hadn’t so much to do with a previously agreed upon aesthetic of Imagism, as it was useful in describing some of Aldington’s poems. Pound wanted to make sure Harriet Monroe and her American reading public knew of this error—hence the reason for his and Flint’s clarifications the following spring in Poetry. In a December 1912 letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, Pound writes, “Now: a word about Imagism. I seem to do nothing but object. I refrained from defining Imagism because I think it bad for a school to put out a lot of formulae before there is any large body of work whereon to apply them. The note in Poetry is very incorrect. Imagism is concerned solely with language and presentation. Hellenism & vers libre have nothing to do with it. It is not a matter of subject” (qtd. in Nadel 4).
Before Pound’s official clearing of the air, however, Monroe published a series of new poems by Richard Aldington’s soon-to-be wife Hilda Doolittle, who had been a childhood friend and love interest of Pound. Besides discovering “a gleam of hope in the work of Richard Aldington” (P 1.4 126), this January 1913 issue of Poetry has Pound famously taking the “ilda oolittle” out of Hilda Doolittle. As she remembers the affair, Pound “slashed with a pencil. ‘Cut this out, shorten this line. “Hermes of the Ways” is a good title. I’ll send this to Harriet Monroe of Poetry. Have you a copy? Yes? Then we can send this. or I’ll type it when we get back. Will this do?’ And he scrawled ‘H.D. Imagiste’ at the bottom of the page” (Doolittle 18).
Readers will be familiar with the loose translation of H. D.’s “Hermes of the Ways” (P 1.4)—Monroe called it a “haunting beauty”—as well as H. D.’s “Hymen” (P 15.3) and the “Hesperides” fragments (P 19.1). In her collection in March 1915, we see the imagistic transformations of a poet fascinated by movement in all its forms. Consider, for example, a poem like “Moonrise”:
Will you glimmer on the sea?
Will you fling your spear-head
on the shore?
What note shall we pitch?
We have a song,
on the bank we share our arrows—
the loosed string tells our note:
bring her swiftly to our song.
She is great,
we measure her by the pine-trees. (P 5.6 268)
Are the notes of love played by instruments of war or music? Glints of the sea come onto the shore. The “pitch” of a spear turns into the notes of a musical tone. Bows turn into lyres, their loosed string flighting the lovers’ arrow. Or is there a different currency secretly running through the speaker’s words, where bank notes seem to measure it all? Such was the “wildness” Monroe admired in H. D.’s poetry: “She is never indoors, never even in a tent. . . . Her breath is drawn from bright breezes and bold winds, but never from the walled in atmosphere of rooms” (P&TA 92).
Ezra Pound published his anthology Des Imagistes soon after, taking most of its selections from the pages of Poetry. Monroe, generous, but ever attentive to the necessity of copyright protection for poets and editors, “threatened legal action, withdrawing only on condition that printed stickers of acknowledgement were added” (Carpenter 211). Amy Lowell’s Imagist (minus the “e”) anthologies came next. As Humphrey Carpenter humorously writes, “[a] reader of poetry might well have judged from this that London was swarming with Imagistes” (197). It wasn’t, but that didn’t mean the movement didn’t cause a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. The critical debates surrounding Imagism across the various literary journals were complicated. Individual projects were at stake where questions of poetics were always balanced by politics and personalities.
“’Imagism,’ though a wee small voice, was very upsetting to those who heard it,” writes Monroe, adding that “[m]any were the ‘Is-this-poetry?’ protests received by the editors during that first exciting year” (P&TA 317). William Stanley Braithwaite—an interesting figure in his own right—was an African-American poet and influential literary critic who wrote an annual review in the Boston Evening Transcript surveying the poems of the past year. He paid little attention to Poetry during its first few years but then suddenly attacked and dismissed it in 1916, claiming that “the radical influence of Poetry itself has waned” (EW 201). In the January 1917 issue of Poetry, Monroe dismissed the claim that Poetry was “the organ of Ezra Pound’s radicalism,” and responded: “this is the first time the Boston dictator in these annual reviews has even mentioned Poetry or its influence. We should be duly grateful that he has finally discovered us . . .” (P 9.4 212). Alice Corbin Henderson detected Amy Lowell’s hand behind the attack (EW 202).
If we followed that old adage stating that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, we would assume (incorrectly) that Conrad Aiken, critical of Braithwaite’s policies, would find himself sitting alongside Monroe. And yet, in an essay published a year before Braithwaite’s criticism, Aiken found himself attacking both Braithwaite and Monroe: “November is a deadly month for poets: simultaneously, then, appear two annual phenomena against which I am sure the fastidious must rage: Mr. Braithwaite’s selection of the year’s best poem, Miss Monroe’s prize-giving and list of honorable mentions” (qtd. in EW 171).
Monroe responded to Aiken in an essay titled “Its Inner Meaning” in the same issue, interestingly enough, in which she published his poems “Discordants I-V,” a verse sequence which begins: “All that was once so Beautiful is dead” (P 6.6 287). Having some fun with Aiken’s name-calling, Monroe writes: “Mr. Conrad Aiken . . . accuses [the Imagists] of a dark and piratical conspiracy to ‘revolutionize poetry,’ and of nameless crimes like ‘myopia,’ ‘synaethesia,’ ‘super-refinement,’ ‘over-civilization.’ They are ‘absurdly artificial,’ ‘singularly inhuman.’ . . . prosers instead of poets” who needed to be “put firmly in their place” (302). It was not as if the Imagists were not aware of the effete, pretentious images they sometimes projected. Flint, in his defining manifesto, had written, “It is true that snobisme may be urged against them; but it is at least snobisme in its most dynamic form, with a great deal of sound sense and energy behind it” (P 1.6 200). Monroe’s defense was attuned more to poetic tradition than to a revolutionary proclamation. “Certain metric forms and rhyme tunes,” she wrote, “have been followed by so many generations of English poets that the modern world has come to think of them fundamental instead of incidental.” She stressed the need to “go back to first principles, and remind ourselves that the art of poetry existed before ever Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or even Homer was born, and that it will exist when English is a dead language.” And, with a poetic eye watching not only the past but also the future, she reasoned that “Imagism is by no means the last word . . . but in so far as it is a protest against narrow-mindedness and provincialism . . . it is a good word, and a word that needs to be uttered” (P 6.6 304).
The controversies surrounding Imagism morphed into the larger debates surrounding vers libre or free verse. Harriet Monroe’s two-part “Confessional,” called “Rhythms of English Verse” and published at the end of 1913, defended the practice to the hilt. It called on a natural order to break what she saw as the dead end of accentual-syllabic verse. “Rhythm is rhythm, and its laws are unchangeable, in poetry, in music, in the motion of tides and stars, in the vibration of sound-waves, light-waves, or the still more minute waves of molecular action” (P 3.2 61). The following month, she defended “vers libre, whose rhythmic subtleties may be only at the beginning of their development,” because it was “a demand for greater freedom of movement within the bar and the line” (P 3.3 110).
Some were thrilled with the new poetic rhythms, some were repulsed. Everyone had an opinion. Floyd Dell, speaking for the younger generation in the Friday Review of the Evening Post, was ecstatic: “Ezra Pound we salute you! You are the most enchanting poet alive. Your poems in the April Poetry are so mockingly, so delicately, so unblushingly beautiful” (APL 310). “Other newspapers parodied or attacked” the new verse, Ellen Williams notes, adding that even “Poetry‘s own readers wrote in sputtering letters about ‘esoteric writhings,’ ‘insufferable snobs,’ ‘expatriate sensationalists,’ and ‘plain blackguardism’” (48).
In a letter printed in the Dial, Wallace Rice, writer for the Tribune, called Poetry magazine “a thing for laughter.”8 For Rice, as Williams notes, poetry meant technique, technique meant tradition, and “both Pound and Poetry [were] violators of everything sacred in the past” (49). William Rose Benét of the Century joined the Dial‘s criticism. For what it was worth, Pound seemed amused, but thought the whole debate outdated: “It’s like quarreling over impressionism or Manet,” he wrote to Monroe (April or May, 1913; qtd. in EW 50). Even many of Monroe’s own poets were dismayed. John G. Neihardt, whose verse-drama The Death of Agrippina constituted the entire May 1913 issue, wrote to Monroe about her “wretched drivel”: “Will you and an impudent young man wipe out a tremendous past that has produced us?” (EW 51).
The debates over vers libre continued for the remainder of the decade and, in some pockets, continue to this day. Monroe’s more modest personal response of 1924 perhaps best captures her position: “Of late a small but loud group of sonneteers have been trying to persuade us that ‘the free-verse movement’ was a passing fashion. But no movement is a mere fashion if it produces work of enduring beauty and value” (FVMA 704). If we might lightheartedly paraphrase some words from Dr. Johnson’s comment about Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, “nothing odd will do long. Free verse did not last.”
It wasn’t only the experimental verse at Poetry that became controversial. With the departure of Pound after 1917, but not necessarily the result of it, Poetry lost over a third of its subscribers. Much of what Monroe published, according to many critics, did not have the bite of the earlier selections. Edgar Jepson, English mystery writer and one-time editor of Vanity Fair who had just published his address “Words and the Poet” in Poetry (10.2), launched a malicious attack upon Poetry and American verse. His article in the May, 1918 issue of the English Review put into words many of Pound’s not-so-secret frustrations (Pound ended up reprinting the article in the opening pages of the Little Review, September, 1918). As Ellen Williams writes, Jepson berated Lindsay, Masters, and Frost, and he assailed Poetry as “the seat of a western school in a pastiche of the recent prose of Mrs. Henderson and Miss Monroe . . . [and he further] speculated that American writers in general lacked all sense of beauty in words because of the ugliness of American speech” (233-34).
Monroe’s response was swift and across the board. “The editor of POETRY has wiped Mr. Jepson off the map in an article recently sent to the editor of the English Review, who will publish it unless he feels sorry for Mr. Jepson,” she wrote (P 12.4 208). Curiously, Monroe’s reply also attacked T. S. Eliot—the one American poet admired by Jepson: “Can it be that Mr. Jepson is unconsciously prejudiced in Mr. Eliot’s favor by the fact that he has left this barbaric land of plop-eyed bungaroos, and gone into what seems to be—alas!—permanent exile in a country truly civilized?” (210). For Monroe, the attacks on the magazine and American poetry, particularly during a time of war, were attacks on America itself. Mr. Jepson, she suggested, ought to “get acquainted with our boys in the trenches. They are of all kinds—from farm and university, factory, office and forest range. They are not afraid of life—or death” (212).
Although Monroe would continue to defend her journal and the democratic values of American poetry throughout the run of the magazine, she did so with heightened attention during the war. Her November 1913 essay, “A Century in Illinois,” expresses these beliefs:
When Poetry began, for example, two courses were open: it could have become, what The Little Review is now, the organ of a choice little London group of superintellectualized ultimates and expatriates; or, as I hope it has become, the organ of a higher and more conscious, concentrated and independent imaginative life in this country. (P 13.2 92; qtd. in EW 241)
Despite the positive front, Poetry, according to Williams, “no longer had any real chance of capturing the best work of the new movement. The Jepson attack genuinely paralyzed Harriet Monroe, and rendered her old balancing act between the schools unworkable” (252-53). Scofield Thayer’s The Dial (1920-29) would soon become the focal point of modernist experimentation. Many poets, like John Gould Fletcher, abandoned Poetry, and many, like William Carlos Williams, criticized it.
Still, others such as Richard Aldington, W. B. Yeats, and the editors Alfred Kreymborg and Jane Heap (of the Little Review) offered support. In spite of its “paralysis,” Poetry continued to publish remarkable poets and new voices. From 1921 through 1922, it published, among others, Elinor Wylie (18.1), Elizabeth Madox Roberts (18.4; 20.5), Louise Bogan (20.5), and Yvor Winters (14.6; 17.3; 20.6). Wallace Stevens became a rejuvenating voice. Pound eventually made up with Monroe, sending first a poem by Ford Madox Hueffer (“On Heaven”) and then one by himself (“Thames Morasses”). “I am sure,” he wrote to Monroe, that “there will be a special niche for you on Parnassus, or the Heaven of Good Poets, wherever it be” (qtd. in EW 272). Hueffer chimed in with his own sentiment that the little peak of American periodical literature, “raising it to the level of the best of European cosmopolitanism,” was because Monroe and her “small paper showed how, editorially and economically, it could be done” (P 19.5).
Monroe felt that offering prizes was “a most valuable service to the art” (see “The Question of Prizes” P 7.5 246-49). In contrast to critics who argued that prizes represented a debasement of art by bringing it down to the level of rank commercialism, Monroe believed that prizes promoted the literary arts (as they did for music and the visual arts), recognizing and rewarding talented writers for their important work, while also guaranteeing that, at the very least, they would be fed. Poetry offered two prizes during its early years: the first was the “Guarantor’s Prize” and the second the “Helen Haire Levinson Prize,” funded by Salmon O. Levinson. Ezra Pound, always ready with an objection, thought the awards were too little: “the offer of thirty-five dollars for Yeats’s ‘Dying lady’” was “a gratuitous insult” when “any sculptor or painter of any standing . . . would get £1000 for work of equivalent caliber” (EW 211). Meanwhile, William Carlos Williams thought they were too much, believing they “only create a false market, attracting imitative and opportunistic poets” (EW 218).
Aside from these objections, generally there wasn’t much controversy over Poetry‘s prizes—poets were happy to be recognized and fortunate to have received further financial backing. Amy Lowell and Pound seem (once again) to be the two exceptions. Incensed at not yet being recognized, Lowell suspected the worst. “I know that it [“The Allies”] has no chance whatever of getting a prize,” Lowell wrote to Monroe, “your vaunted Democracy is not so democratic as to give me a prize if you thought I did not need it” (qtd. in Gerber 238). As Philip Gerber writes, “Years afterward, still nursing the hurt, she reminded Harriet of this withdrawal from the prize (“that was the reason I did not receive it”) and wondered why Poetry had not had the grace to mention the fact in its pages” (238).
In 1913, Pound insisted that the first annual Poetry prize go to Yeats over Monroe’s choice, Vachel Lindsay (Carpenter 214; EW 77-78). Was the award “a local high school prize for the encouragement of mediocrity?” he wondered. Pound won out but was soon angered by Monroe’s letter to Yeats, in which she mentioned the prize but also, possibly, a personal preference for Lindsay. “If you think what the magazine would have been without the foreign contributions,!!!!!!!” Pound wrote her (10/13/1919; qtd. in Williams 77). In January of 1914, Monroe printed a gracious thank you letter from Yeats announcing that he wanted to return most of the prize money so that “some young American” could receive it (P 3.4 149). As a matter of fact, Yeats suggested, “Why not give the £40 to Ezra Pound?” (149-50).
The following year brought the announcement of the new Levinson prize. The decision to make it exclusively eligible to American poets freed Monroe somewhat from Pound’s dictates on the matter, but couldn’t free her from his always polite recommendations. Pound, for what it was worth, would come to call it “the American citizen prize” (EW 124). Sandburg’s “Chicago Poems” won in 1914 over Pound’s choices of Hueffer, Fletcher, Frost, or Lindsay. In 1915, Lindsay won for his “Chinese Nightingale.” By then, however, Pound was finished with Lindsay, having moved on to his next discovery, T. S. Eliot. “If your committee don’t make the [annual Poetry] award to Eliot, God only knows what slough of infamy they will fall into . . . !!!!!!!!” he wrote Monroe (Paige 64). (We might note that Eliot, at least in Pound’s currency of exclamation points, has by now one-upped even Yeats).
Monroe, though, would continue to have her say. The following years, the Levinson Prize went to Edgar Lee Masters’s “All Life in a Life,” Cloyd Head’s drama Grotesques, and John Curtis Underwood’s “Song of the Cheechas” (which, it turned out, was partially cribbed from Paul Fortier Jones’s With Serbia into Exile) (EW 249). Between H. L. Davis and Lew Sarett, the award went to Wallace Stevens for his “Pecksniffiana” poems. Robert Frost won in 1922, followed by Edwin Arlington Robinson and, at last, Amy Lowell. William Carlos Williams won the Guarantor’s Award that same year as Lowell and would go on to receive the Levinson Prize in 1954.
If there was one ethical critique leveled at Poetry, it was that the journal didn’t have enough serious social commitment—that Monroe didn’t believe it was the artist’s job to fix what was wrong with the world. This wasn’t really the case, but, looking back from today, it might often seem that way. Part of the challenge was Monroe’s aestheticism, her belief that artistic commitment was a long-term mission that operated on its own terms instead of the terms of fashionable social movements. Her “Aesthetic and Social Criticism” of October 1918 effectively outlines her position:
The poem or picture will stand by its aesthetic adequacy in the triumphant expression of the vision in the artist’s soul, whether this vision be minute or cosmic. And if it is aesthetically inadequate the most illuminating social wisdom will not save it. . . . The artist, big or little, is in his degree a seer; and it may be that he sees deeper than the critic who is obsessed by “the movements of the time.” . . . Movements pass, but beauty endures. . . . if [our living poets] fail it will be through lack of power to feel or to express, or both, but not through lack of social criticism. (P 13.1 41)
While she would not hitch Poetry to any social movement, she believed that it could and ought to appeal to the compassion of the public, especially if the poetry itself shared part of the blame for social ills.
Monroe was aware not only of the importance of poets in keeping civilization in peace (as most poets seem to be aware), but of the very same poets’ culpability in begetting millennia of war. In September of 1914, she wrote, “[p]oets have made more war than kings, and war will not cease until they remove its glamour from the imaginations of men” (P 4.6 237). That month, a few weeks after the war had started, Monroe announced a prize for the best “poem in the interest of peace” (P 4.6). Two months later, Poetry published fourteen of these poems (from among 738 submissions). Robert Scholes and I wrote about these poems in the October 2009 issue of PMLA (“War Poetry from 1914”), so I won’t describe them all in detail again here, but I do want to take a moment to look at one of them again.
Wallace Stevens’s “Phases,” his first major publication, was one of the poems Monroe chose for the War Poems issue. It is a difficult poem, because we’re never quite sure how to understand its rhetoric. The phases of “Phases” continually echo. The repetition is important, because it is how poetic refrains work. But, as the poem makes clear, such repetition is also how we get mindless and dangerous political rhetoric—empty words and insincere songs. We see this in the parrot of the first phase, who “will see us on parade . . . / And serenade.” Later in the poem, the serenading of the war parade is hollowed out as the mythology of the soldier is lost. Contrasted with Agamemnon, the modern warrior is “[o]nly, an eyeball in the mud.” How then can we read: “Fallen Winkle felt the pride / Of Agamemnon / When he died”? Is this epigram a “short, triumphant sting” or merely the parrot in the window repeating someone else’s words?
In addition to these selections from Stevens, the special issue includes poems from both sides of the Atlantic, namely the work of Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Joseph Campbell, Richard Aldington and others. In total, the poems show us the terrors of war as well as the possibilities of hope, which the world needed to hear then as much as it does now.
Something that often gets lost in the anthologies is the strong commitment of periodicals to the servicemen who were fighting abroad. And it wasn’t just the journals’ contents that expressed this support. Many American periodicals during wartime were stamped with the following “Notice to Readers,” from Postmaster-General A. S. Burleson: “When you finish reading this magazine, place a one-cent stamp on this notice, mail the magazine, and it will be placed in the hands of our soldiers or sailors.” The journals were popular, and many of these soldiers wrote back, such as the poets who published in the March 1919 issue (13.6) of Poetry.
The war poems make visible the central paradox of aesthetic ideology: on the one hand, poetry is ideological, safeguarding national, political, and social consciousnesses; on the other hand, poetry might be the only instrument with the fortitude to revise such cultural practices. There is always the danger that the rhetoric of hope will become the call for action. We see this in Padraic Colum’s and Joseph Campbell’s correspondence on “The Dead Irish Poets”— Thomas MacDonagh, Padraic Pearse, and Joseph Mary Plunkett—who were killed by a British firing squad following their participation in the Easter 1916 Rising. Colum wrote to Monroe “[a]s a friend of each of the three poets who were executed in Dublin . . . to thank, through you, the poets of America for the demonstration of sympathy and protest they made in Central Park, New York” (P 8.5 268). In presenting his case, Colum took care to inform the public that the hopes of the Irish poets were part of a larger quest for liberty—one that everyone, revolutionary poets included, ought to share. “The three poets,” he wrote, “were the clan of Byron and Shelley and Walt Whitman—they committed themselves to liberty even unto death” (268). Colum’s and Campbell’s letters were tributes to their fallen companions, yet they were also testaments that poetry crossed national borders—that was what made it so powerful and so threatening.
As the horrifically brutal stretch of trench warfare was beginning on the continent, Monroe offered some of the most hopeful, most rhetorically elegant, most important words you will ever hear uttered about poetry and ethical commitment. Her “New Banners” began:
What are we to do with war—all these wars and rumors of war which absorb man’s interests and energies, waste his treasure, and interrupt his proper modern business—the business of making a more habitable world, and more beautiful and noble men and women to live in it? . . . War . . . is in no detail so disgusting as in its monstrous presence of heroism . . . heroism which should have been preserved for the slow struggles of peace. (P 8.5 251)
Monroe understood the discursive importance of poetry; she understood that “the war to end all wars” would not be fought in the fields but, rather, in the hearts and souls of the people. “Give them dreams more beautiful and heroic than their long-cherished vision of the glory of war,” she wrote, “and they will put away war like a worn-out garment, and unite for conquests really glorious, for the advance toward justice and beauty in the brotherhood of nations” (253).
To this end, Monroe was not only active in supporting the war effort. She also supported the peace effort, even when it turned out to be an unpopular position. Her defense of George Sylvester Viereck, who had been thrown out of the Poetry Society of America for being a conscientious objector to the war, showed that Monroe was there to defend those who otherwise wouldn’t be defended. “A society of poets,” she wrote, “should be the freest body in the world, the most tolerant of individual idiosyncrasy of thought and word. . . . The whole tragi-comic incident is but a detail of a menacing public mood,” one which was “destructive of liberty and provocative of violence” (P 13.5 266-67). For all of Monroe’s populist leanings, she had no trouble going against the crowd when she thought it was the right thing to do. She even offered a piece of advice couched within a novel understanding of the U. S. Constitution. “[I]f the world is to be made, and kept, safe for democracy,” she contended, there had to be a continuous “spiritual war for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the press,” because “a constitution, however well written, does not fulfill itself; sooner or later it will become a scrap of paper unless it is fulfilled by the spiritual fervor of those who swear allegiance to it from generation to generation” (265).
“An American . . . called this p.m. I think he has some sense tho’ he has not yet sent me any verse,” Pound wrote to Monroe in September of 1914 (qtd. in EW 123). A week later, Pound wrote again about the poem the American had sent him:
the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American. PRAY GOD IT BE NOT A SINGLE AND UNIQUE SUCCESS. . . . He has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN. It is such a comfort to meet a man and not have to tell him to wash his face, wipe his feet, and remember the date (1914) on the calendar. (EW 123; Carpenter 258)
What is it? Let us go and make our visit. The modernized poet was T. S. Eliot, and the poem was called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Published in the June, 1915 number of Poetry, “Prufrock” was unlike anything that had come before it—what Pound called “a portrait of failure” (Paige 44f). It is still a wonder to see how Eliot had presumed to begin:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells. . . . (P 6.3 130)
Even though Monroe would later endorse this “masterpiece of agonized irony, of accusation . . . [which gave voice to] the malaise of our time, its bitter suffering, its conviction of futility, its wild dance on an ash-heap before a clouded and distorted mirror,” her initial response was not too generous (FVMA 703). She wasn’t too impressed with the “very European world-weariness of Eliot’s Laforgue-derived voice”—a tedious argument, perhaps (Carpenter 260). It was significant that “Prufrock” was tucked away at the very end of the issue, with Monroe seemingly wondering whether it would have been worth while after all—something that doesn’t pop up in the modernist anthologies. The “Notes” section introduced Eliot simply as “a young American poet resident in England, who has published nothing hitherto in this country” (P 6.3 159). (Kenner makes the point in Invisible Poet that even the unknown Ajan Syrian was given more face time.) A few years later, Eunice Tietjens reviewed Arthur Davison Ficke’s “Prufrock” parody “Cafe Sketches” (published in The Little Review, September, 1915), which began: “I want to see dawn spilled across the blackness / Like scrambled egg on the skillet” (P 10.6 324).
Eliot, gaining more of a reputation, published his “Conversation Galante,” “La Figlia Che Piange,” “Mr. Apollinax,” and “Morning at the Window” in Poetry (8.6). Pound’s review of Prufrock and Other Observations came shortly after. Pound praised Eliot’s verse for “its fine tone, its humanity, and its realism” (Carpenter 267). Even though Pound speaks of “realism of one sort or another” (267), his term is problematic, as is much of Eliot’s verse, not only because the term “realism” is unsettled, but also because it carries significant gender implications. “[H]ow complete is Mr. Eliot’s depiction of our contemporary condition,” Pound contended—“complete,” because Eliot “has not confined himself to genre nor to society portraiture. His ‘lonely men in shirt-sleeves leaning out of windows’ are as real as his ladies who ‘come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’” (265). The men are the pensive poets looking out onto the world, while the women are merely gossiping about and consuming what social culture put forth. Both Pound and Eliot deserve the criticism. Still, it should not be the only context for understanding their contributions. As Pound wrote of Eliot, “[t]he reader will find nothing better and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good. . . . Confound it, the fellow can write—we may as well sit up and take notice” (P 10.5 264-71).
“Have just discovered another Amur’kn. VURRY Amur’k’n, with, I think, the seeds of grace,” Ezra Pound wrote to the Poetry office in 1913 (Letters 15). He was talking about Robert Frost. “I only found the man by accident,” he continued, “and I think I’ve about the only copy of the book that has left the shop. . . . I think we should print this notice at once as we ought to be first . . .” (Paige 16). As usual, Pound could be both pleased and displeased with a poet’s work. He called Frost “that dull beast,” “as dull as ditch water, as dull as Wordsworth. But he is trying almost the hardest job of all and he is set to be ‘literchure’ some day” (letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, 10/14/13; Carpenter 200-01, EW 67). Pound was frequently more generous in print. In a May 1913 review of Frost’s A Boy’s Will, Pound wrote that Frost “has now and then such a swift and bold expression. . . . He is without sham and without affectation” (P 2.5 74).
“There is evidence that Robert Frost, before meeting Pound, submitted poems to Harriet Monroe . . . and that the poems were refused by . . . Alice Corbin Henderson” (Thompson 588n). A letter from Monroe to Pound states: “Alice says mea culpa about Frost. For we find him among our returns. . . . She has the grit to stand up, however, and say if it was returned it deserved it, or at least those particular poems did. You can apologize for us and say we are very contrite and would like some more some day” (qtd. in Thompson 588n). Frost sent more along, specifically the very icy dialogue-poems: “The Code—Heroics” (3.5), “Snow” (9.2), and “The Witch of Coös” (19.4), a horror story-in verse. As Poetry magazine made clear, it could be both a blessing and a curse to be “Vurry Amur’k’n.”
Vachel Lindsay’s song-poems, especially his popular “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (P 1.4), were favorites of Monroe. Lindsay’s “roots run deep into the past of American literature,” Monroe wrote, castigating Amy Lowell for ignoring him (P 11.3 153). It is odd that Lindsay has fallen out of favor today, for, as John Chapman Ward writes, he was “once considered a giant of ‘The New Poetry’ . . . who seemed capable of shaping the American idiom in verse for the modern age” (233). Lindsay’s poems appeared frequently in Poetry (see, for example, issue 4.4, his popular “The Chinese Nightingale” in 5.5, the poems in 19.4, the collection Whimseys in 14.5, and 11.1, which contains a paean to the Russian revolutionary Alexander Kerensky).
Lindsay was a supporter of many causes, respecting those, particularly, of African Americans. Unfortunately, Lindsay’s verse often ended up perpetuating many of the grotesque stereotypes his efforts were meant to undo. His poem “Congo,” for instance, shows what Ward calls Lindsay’s “(racist. . .) attempt to value an Afro-American culture” (238). Even though W. E. B. Du Bois was a defender and fan of much of Lindsay’s work, he would critique the poem for reinforcing the belief that the African exhibited a violent, anti-rational primitivism. Lindsay’s “Booker T. Washington Trilogy” sends Simon Legree (the brutal slave owner who kills Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) “down to the Devil,” where he “share[s] the throne / . . . matching pennies and shooting craps / . . . playing poker and taking naps” (P 8.3 109, 111-12). The verse shows how horrors might be vilified and made light of at the same time. Whether or not such responses were appropriate is just one of the complicated problems that arise when culture, politics, and racial identity intersect.
“Poems to Be Chanted,” from July 1914, shows the inner workings of Lindsay’s verse-songs, complete with marginal-note instructions on how they ought to be chanted. This stanza from, for example, from “The Fireman’s Ball” is “[t]o be read or sung in a heavy buzzing bass, as of fire-engines pumping”:
With a red and royal
A tangle of sounds
And a syncopation,
Sweeping and bending
From side to side,
Master of dreams,
With a peacock pride. . . . (P 4.4 126)
Amy Lowell’s relationship with Harriet Monroe and Poetry is best described by what Philip L. Gerber calls “a decade of professional sparring”: “Harriet thought Amy’s manner officious, her poetry less than first-rate; Amy sensed the editor’s reservations and resented them deeply” (233). For Monroe, Lowell will always be “remembered more as a person than as a poet” (P&TA 80).
After reading the January 1913 issue of Poetry, Lowell famously exclaimed “Why, I, too, am an Imagiste!” (Damon 196). Sent by Monroe to meet Pound in London to find out more about the Imagist movement, Lowell found the movement dead and Pound onto the next big thing—Vorticism. Pound notoriously ruined the banquet Lowell was holding for the Imagists, by putting a mock bathtub over his head and calling for a new movement of “Les Nagistes” (See Fletcher 148-49). Not giving up just yet on the possibilities of Imagism, Lowell returned home and brought many of the Imagist poets originally printed in Pound’s collection together in a few new anthologies, titled Some Imagist Poets. Pound dismissively called this poetic reincarnation “Amygism.” Monroe unwittingly became a sounding board for what quickly became the Lowell-Pound controversy.
There was a lot at stake in this hullabaloo aside from simply determining the rightful progenitor and implementer of Imagism. As Bonnie Kime Scott notes, making Lowell the consummate punch line had more to do with Pound’s masculine political ideology than with any aesthetic matter. Scott writes, “Lowell’s ‘feud’ with Ezra Pound provides a precedent for resisting his version of modernism, and the mastery traditionally granted to the male makers of modernism” (136). Scott’s critique is not leveled at Pound so much as his later advocates, such as Hugh Kenner, who ended up “patrolling the boundaries of masculine modernism against Lowell’s incursion by air and sea”.9 Shifting the biographical anecdote to where it belongs—on the lap of the critic conveying the tale—Adrienne Munich and Melissa Bradshaw write: “Whether she is remembered as the interloper who used money and family connections to wrest the term [Imagism] away from Pound, water it down, and sell it to the masses; or whether she is remembered as pivotal in introducing modern poetics to American audiences through her clever deployment and marketing of the term depends on who is telling the story” (xiii).
Monroe was grateful to Lowell both for Lowell’s personal sponsorship of the magazine—Amy “had, in effect, exchanged a $200.00 contribution for Harriet’s assurance of early publication” (Gerber 233)—and for the publicity she often brought it. But Monroe was also indebted to Lowell for contributing some very good verse, despite what she and Alice Corbin Henderson frequently thought about her personally. “Miss Monroe had seen and admired Miss Lowell’s sonnets in the Atlantic Monthly, and invited her to contribute,” Lowell’s biographer S. Foster Damon writes (186). This admiration notwithstanding, Monroe and Henderson had good enough reason to be put off by Amy’s constant complaints: why she didn’t appear first in a given issue, why she didn’t have an issue dedicated solely to her, why she wasn’t being paid more for her poems, why she wasn’t an editor, why she wasn’t listed on Poetry‘s advertisements as one of the outstanding new writers (Gerber 235-36). Even more maddening, perhaps, was Lowell’s fear of persecution—“Why is it that you alone conspire to keep me in the back seat, when neither my own talents nor the public appreciation of them keep me there?” (Gerber 240).10 Sometimes, Gerber writes, “even Harriet, ordinarily the soul of tact, might slip, as when she requested that rather than taking cash payment for her poems Amy should deduct the amount from her next contribution . . .” (240). Funny, yet also unfair for a poet who, rightfully or not, didn’t get the attention she felt she deserved.
Scanning the Poetry collection, you’ll discover why Lowell has become a major modernist figure. “It would not be overstatement,” Munich and Bradshaw assert, “to claim that Lowell was modern poetry to the majority of readers: her opinions about other poets, her views about literary history, her popular and well-attended lectures reading her own poems and those of her contemporaries definitively reshaped conceptions of the literary scene” (xii). And from the pen of Monroe herself comes the following: “[Lowell] has used free-verse in certain fine lyrics—’Night Clouds,’ ‘Ombre, Chinoise,’ ‘A Gift’; in her New England narratives—character sketches couched in a harsh dialect; in brocaded monologues and narratives like ‘Patterns’; and with delightful gaiety in grotesques like ‘Red Slippers’ or the Stravinsky pieces” (FVMA 700). Beyond all the controversies, suspicions, and obsessions, Lowell left an extraordinary legacy behind in her verse contributions to Monroe’s journal.
Lowell’s prose-poetry, or what she called “polyphonic prose,” offers yet another possibility for contemporary sound. “The Bombardment,” one such poem, pushed into the “War Poems” (P 5.2) issue on Lowell’s insistence, iterates the sounds of war through the sudden shocks of “Boom!” William Carlos Williams, for one, was a big fan of Lowell’s “Appuldurcombe Park” (P 12.5). Lowell’s poems in 2.4, 4.1, 6.1, and 16.6, her Chalks series (6.6), the Lacquer Prints (9.6), and the haiku collection, “Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme” (18.3), are all worthy of second looks. These two hokku are from June, 1921. They hold the weight of years in such a tight space.
How have I hurt you?
You look at me with pale eyes,
But these are my tears.
Take it, this white rose.
Stems of roses do not bleed;
Your fingers are safe. (P 18.3 124-25)
“In 1914,” writes Monroe, “two powerful middle-western names added to the noise of controversy which the Imagists had stirred up: Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters were champions whom no protagonist of exact metrics could afford to ignore” (FVMA 701). Sandburg and Masters became friends, as did Sandburg and Lindsay. In fact, it was difficult not to be friends with the always affable Chicagoan. Unlike Pound, and in keeping with Monroe’s vision, Sandburg was a poet of the crowd, celebrating it at every turn. Penelope Niven acknowledges that “[i]n large measure it had been Harriet Monroe who helped Sandburg find himself and his home in Chicago, nearly a quarter of a century earlier, when she read ‘Chicago Poems,’ and heard the music and the message in them, and shared them in the pages of her small, courageous magazine” (525).
And yet, “[e]ven Harriet Monroe found the opening lines of Sandburg’s ‘Chicago’ ‘a shock at first,’ but she ‘took a long breath and swallowed it’” even though she was “also ‘laughed at scornfully by critics and columnists’” for publishing the poem (Niven 242; APL 322). The opening lines, Whitman-esque in their own way, astonish to this day:
Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted
women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
They tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the
gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and
children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. . . . (P 3.6 191)
Eunice Tietjens, then working in the Poetry office, saw the outrage and confusion first-hand. She writes that the poems “roused a veritable storm of protest over what was then called their brutality. Many Chicagoans were furious at seeing the city presented in this, to them, unflattering light” (The World at My Shoulder (1938) 38-42; qtd. in Niven 243). Unsurprisingly, The Dial responded: “The typographical arrangement for this jargon . . . creates suspicion that it is intended to be taken as some form of poetry . . . [in] a futile little periodical described as a ‘magazine of verse’” (qtd. in Niven 243). Monroe, in turn, defended her poet in essays such as “The Enemies We Have Made,” which began “Next to making friends, the most thrilling experience of life is to make enemies” (P 4.2 61). She wrote, “It is possible that we have ventured rashly in ‘discovering’ Mr. Sandburg and the others, but . . . [w]e have taken chances, made room for the young and the new, tried to break the chains which enslave Chicago to New York, America to Europe, the present to the past—what chances has The Dial ever taken?” (63-64).
Sandburg’s “Chicago,” Newcomb writes, became “a self-defining editorial statement for this proudly Chicagoan magazine” (97), and he would go on to publish there extensively. “Jan Kubelik,” “The Harbor,” and “Lost” joined his “Chicago” poem (3.6), and the collections: Days (7.1), My People (10.1), Redhaw Winds (13.1), and Smoke Nights (15.5), as well as the set of poems in March of 1922 (19.6) came later. Sandburg also wrote reviews for the journal, including a February, 1916 reflection on Ezra Pound, “the best man writing poetry today.” Given their very, very different poetic styles, it will be surprising for some readers that Pound found such an admirer in Sandburg. “He stains darkly and touches softly,” Sandburg writes of his contemporary; “The flair of great loneliness is there” (P 7.5 250, 257). He wasn’t wrong.
Monroe wrote that Sandburg’s
free-verse rhythms are as personal as his slow speech and massive gait; always an appropriate beating-out of his subject, from . . . frank, grotesquely disguised prose . . . to the magical delicacy of “The Great Hunt,” “Gone,” “Cool Thumbs,” and certain other songs which should rank among the most beautiful in the language. His subjects, usually intensely local and personal, take on the spaciousness of all adequate art, and his work as a whole gives us the very feeling and quality of the prairie, the men it breeds, and the great city it has built. (FVMA 701)
Always going out of his way to be generous, Sandburg spoke in a very heartwarming manner at Monroe’s funeral (“In appreciation of Harriet Monroe” The Courier 10 May 1938). He might not have been the “best man writing poetry,” but he was one of its, shall we say, “Big Shoulders.”
“Most readers of [Wallace] Stevens remember Monroe’s editorial liberties with ‘Sunday Morning,’ eliminating three stanzas and encouraging rearrangement of four of the remaining five,” writes Stevens scholar George Lensing (245). In fact, it was Stevens who “allowed [her] to reduce ‘Sunday Morning’ from eight to five stanzas and to reorder four of the five for Poetry” (Lensing 92). While in the case of “Sunday Morning” Monroe’s suggestions might have been a little off the mark (Stevens was later able to print the poem as he wanted it in Harmonium), Stevens was generally patient and appreciative with her critiques. “I am grateful to you for your notes,” he writes, “and, of course, for the check” (Stevens 182).
The bond between Stevens and Monroe seems never to have frayed. Stevens was a friend and supporter of Monroe, even after 1920 when many of the poets she discovered and promoted began to abandon her. She had praised Stevens’s “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which had been published in the rival journal Others: “Mr. Stevens has a sense of words, of rhythm and color, and better still, of things underneath which these reveal” (P 6.6 316). Later on, she called him “intensely individual, [as] he had belonged to no school and taken orders from his muse alone” (FVMA 703). In return, Stevens always sent along “what I like most” (qtd. in Lensing 245-46). According to Lensing, “Monroe’s loyalty to Stevens . . . her pleas for him to go on as a poet, her advocacy of his work, and, behind it all, her keen understanding of his art single her out as the poet’s first important reader” (245). Unlike Pound and others who often didn’t ask permission to reprint poems originally published in Poetry, Stevens paid careful attention to respect Monroe’s earlier efforts and rights as a publisher: “A. Kreymborg . . . wants to put the thing [eight poems from “Pecksniffiana”] in this year’s Others anthology. I said that he might as he liked but thought he should first procure your consent” (Stevens 215).
Stevens’s verse drama “Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise,” published by Poetry in 1916, won the magazine’s prize. Stevens sent in more poems thereafter, collected as Letters d’un Soldat (12.2), Pecksniffiana (15.1)—the name was based on the character in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit—and Sur Ma Guzzla Gracile (19.1). Pecksniffiana included “Anecdote of the Jar,” “Homunculus et la Belle Etoile,” “Of the Surface of Things,” “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage,” and “Ploughing on Sunday.” It won the Levinson Prize. Sur ma Guzzla Gracile included the popular “The Snow Man,” “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” and the tantalizing “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores”:
I say now, Fernando, that on that day
The mind roamed as a moth roams,
Among the blooms beyond the open sand . . .
Then it was that that monstered moth
Which had lain folded against the blue
And the colored purple of the lazy sea . . .
Rose up besprent and sought the flaming red
Dabbed with yellow pollen—red as red
As the flag above the old café—
And roamed there all the stupid afternoon. (P 19.1 9)
Stevens at his best. We never know where we stand or, in this case, flutter. Originally conjured as a mere simile, the moth in the mind is enlivened, like that monster of Frankenstein. It “rose” up into the red, the “red as red,” the flaming red, not the blue and the purple of the “lazy sea.” The moth worked all day unlike the sea, unlike the mind conjuring moths in the stupid afternoon.
“Our poems constantly, continuously and stupidly were rejected by all the pay magazines except Poetry and The Dial,” William Carlos Williams wrote in his Autobiography (174). Accompanying his first publications in Poetry magazine was interestingly enough his verse-review about Ferdinand Earle’s poetry collection Lyric Year. Williams’s review poem is a parody of John Keats’s famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” as can be seen in its title, “On First Opening The Lyric Year” (P 2.3 114-15). Williams had hoped to be included in this collection, and, while his “review” was enthusiastic, he was still a little bitter at being left out (Mariani 101). His twelve-line poem in couplets compares being immortalized in an anthology to being mortalized in a cemetery: “how good it must be to spend / Some thousand years there from beginning to end.” Upon realizing “That I too would have to be like all the other dead,” the speaker concludes that, perhaps, it was better in the end to be left out of both.
Williams’s other poems in this issue are in keeping with this unusual critique. They range from weird (“Peace on Earth”) to weirder (“Sicilian Emigrant’s Song: In New York Harbor”). The discordant character of these works, however, later gives way in the same issue to the rhythmically beautiful “Postlude,” a poem that was much admired by Pound. It was Pound after all who insisted Monroe publish Williams. Paul Mariani notes the similarity between “Postlude” and Pound’s own verse: “If Pound had a special liking for one poem of Williams’ other than ‘Hic Jacet,’ it was for his ‘Postlude,’ a poem studded with classical allusions and bearing the mark of a new rhythm, closer to Pound’s own advanced metrical experiments, and Pound sent it on to Harriet Monroe in February with directions to be sure to print it” (105).
Unlike Monroe’s relationship with Stevens, the one with Williams quickly became unsteady. Williams was sensitive about his own work and confident enough with it once he became a more prominent poet. He also didn’t care for many of the magazine’s editorial policies, such as paying its contributors, and he let Monroe know as much. According to Mariani, Williams
didn’t like [her] interference with his poems and he didn’t mind telling her that Poetry was already “closed to rugged beginnings.”Poetry would have to get tougher or stop publishing. And the fact that Poetry insisted on paying its contributors (unlike Others) could only hurt. “Verse don’t pay,” he told her, “and no boosting by Poetry will ever make it pay.” One wrote because one had something to say, and not for money. (127; April 11, 1916)
Throughout the years, though, Williams would continue both successfully and unsuccessfully to play mediator for Monroe. He patched up the relationship between Monroe and Kreymborg for a time and tried, but failed, to restore the one with Maxwell Bodenheim: “should I be able to get him to reconsider his withdrawal of the verse and play you had accepted would you print them for him?” (qtd. in Mariani 127). A few years later, after Williams had a falling out with Kreymborg, “he wrote to Monroe to tell her . . . that Kreymborg had given his manuscripts back so that he might turn them over to Poetry. Frankly, Williams added, he wanted to get paid now for his poems; he was ‘sick of standing at the Paying Teller’s window’” (qtd. in Mariani 154-55). This paying teller’s window became a sort of a private joke in the poems Monroe next published of Williams, as Mariani notes. She called his contribution for the March 1919 issue: “Broken Windows.”
Williams’s “Notes from a Talk on Poetry” (P 14.4) speaks of the laws of poetry and science. “The poet goes up and down continually empty-handed.” The poet attacks, Williams writes, punning that it “is his job, in lieu of getting into the game on a fair footing” (211). “It is impossible,” he concludes “to write modern poetry today in the old forms . . . nothing is safe” (216). Williams’s empty-handed “Love Song,” “Naked,” “Marriage,” “Apology,” and “Summer Song” show just how unfair a poet’s footing may be.
So different, this man
And this woman:
A stream flowing
In a field.
(“Marriage,” P 9.2 84)
Why do I write today?
The beauty of
The terrible faces
Of our nonentities
Stirs me to it. . . . (“Apology”)
One of Ezra Pound’s first big scores as foreign correspondent was getting his friend William Butler Yeats to send along work. Yeats gave poems to Pound, which Pound, of course, could not help but reword (Carpenter, 191-92). Yeats was angry but forgiving. When he won Poetry‘s first annual prize in 1913, he suggested Monroe give most of the money to Pound. While Pound was a defender of Yeats, he often didn’t shy away from speaking his mind. “[A]lthough [Yeats] is the greatest of living poets . . . his art has not broadened much in scope during the past decade,” Pound wrote, insisting that Yeats’s “gifts to English art are mostly negative”—as in showing other poets what not to do (P 1.4 125). A year hence, Pound—writing about “The Later Yeats” before he had become what we think of as “the later Yeats”—declared that “Mr. Yeats is so assuredly an immortal that there is no need for him to recast his style to suit our winds of doctrine” (P 4.2 65). That was from Pound’s review of Responsibilities in the May, 1914 issue of Poetry, which followed on the heels of a set of Yeats’s poems. The poems, there, included “To a Shade,” “The Peacock” and “When Helen Lived”—another take on the mythologizing of Yeats’s love interest, Maud Gonne, as Helen of Troy:
We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair,
Or noisy, insolent sport,
Beauty we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given, but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest. (P 4.2 54)
Here, we have the men foolishly walking away from their brides, the irony being that they are “deserting” by going to war. The pun on “affair” brings the triviality of the whole business to light. At first, we might wonder why the men didn’t give Helen more than a word and a jest. But that might not even be the right question. Who is the “we” crying about the silly men, and is this the same “we” who had won beauty, and the same “we” who, to borrow a phrase from another poem, had uttered “polite meaningless words”? Is the “we” the Greeks or the Trojans, the men or the women, or anyone else without a voice? It’s not as clear as it would initially seem. And finally, as the title of the collection begs us to answer, what is the responsibility here?
Yeats published poems early and often in Poetry (1.3, 2.1, 3.1). His selections in issues 4.2 and 7.5 provide initial samples of work that would be revised again and again. Yeats’s verse drama of split dialectical selves, “Ego Dominus Tuus,” appears at the end of 1917 (11.1), and his much loved “A Prayer for My Daughter” was published two years after (15.2). Personally, I found the version of “The Scholars” in the February 1916 issue most interesting:
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair. . . . (P 7.5 226)
The poem is a condemnation of literary critics who get so bogged down in the minutiae of their job that they forget the romantic essence of poetry. Or, at least that’s what it would seem to be. When I wrote about this poem a few years ago, I argued that Yeats’s revisions—specifically of this poem—ironically show him to be more like the despised critic than the youthful poet.11 Coming across this poem in Poetry, I discovered another interesting twist. The final lines, there, read:
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way!
We understand the final couplet rhetorically—the speaker, poking fun at the dry critics, asks (or seems rhetorically to imply) that they wouldn’t be so enamored of Catullus if he treated poetry as they treated it. In subsequent versions of the poem, Yeats replaced “Should” with “Did.” But none of these other versions end with an exclamation mark—the final line is always a question. Granted, we understand that the question is rhetorical, but here, because of the exclamation, there is no mistaking it. This version makes us re-consider the other versions and whether (as in Paul de Man’s famous reading of the final lines of “Among School Children”) we might otherwise understand the line literally, as the speaker honestly asking a question about whether literary critics ought to rethink their whole enterprise.
In addition to the poets listed above, you’ll discover, in the MJP’s collection, poems from canonical modernist authors, such as Sherwood Anderson, Rupert Brooke, D. H. Lawrence, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marianne Moore. The poetic-prose of Anderson’s Mid-American Songs (10.6) makes a nice contrast to the seamless rhymes of Millay (10.5, 12.3) and the perfectly chiseled verses of Lawrence (3.4, 5.3, 13.5, 21.2). Pound, in a review of Lawrence, had called him “pre-raphaelitish slush, disgusting or very nearly so” and yet there was “no English poet under forty who can get within shot of him” (P 2.4 149). Lawrence’s “War Films” (14.4) might, in turn, be read against Brooke’s Nineteen Fourteen poems (6.1), which were published years earlier in April 1915, the month he died on the Continent from sepsis. And then there are the scrupulous “Pouters and Fantails” of the incomparable Marianne Moore (6.2). You’ll also come across some names that are slowly being forgotten, like Walter de la Mare (10.1; 19.3), Orrick Johns (3.5; 5.5; 9.6), Edwin Arlington Robinson (3.6, 6.6), and Edgar Lee Masters (11.1, 14.3, passim) whose Spoon River Anthology was quite popular in his day.12 There is so much to explore, from Max Michelson’s Masks (13.2) to Marjorie Allen Seiffert’s Gallery of Paintings (“Words curl like fragrant smoke-wreaths in the room” 18.4), from the academic Joseph Warren Beach’s Drypoints (6.2) to Moireen Fox a Cheavasa’s “Silence” and “Disillusion” (17.4).
I want to introduce some of the less familiar poets and personalities you’ll find in these pages and then leave you alone with their words. It is not for me to say whether this poetry is good, bad or (even) ugly; but, taken together, as we ought to read them, the poets tell the incredible stories of a generation in verse.
Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)—poet, novelist, and vitriolic critic—was born in Savannah Georgia. He moved to Massachusetts and attended Harvard University, where he met and befriended T. S. Eliot. He won the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes and the National Book Award. He had no compunctions about making his exasperations known, as in his resistance to Imagism, which I described earlier. He wrote to Monroe that she and Pound were “using Poetry too egotistically, in order to give expression and scope to their own personalities. . . . Must we believe [Pound] when he says with lazy indifference . . . that there is no new poetry in England at present . . . ?” (qtd. in EW 35). His “Discordants” (6.6) and the series Many Evenings (14.5) are worth looking at. The “Prelude” to the latter echoes Eliot’s “Prufrock”: “ . . . along black streets that glisten as if with rain, / The muted city seems / Like one in a restless sleep who lies and dreams.” But, as Aiken would remind us, the influence worked both ways. Some words from his “Haunted Chambers”:
The lamp-lit page is turned, the dream forgotten;
The music changes tone, you wake, remember
Deep worlds you lived before, deep world hereafter
Of leaf on falling leaf, music on music,
Rain and sorrow and wind and dust and laughter. (P 14.5 239)
Maxwell Bodenheim (1892-1954) was an inexhaustible writer in every sense of the term. He was a lifelong friend of Ben Hecht (see below) but had a rough relationship with Monroe. In a letter dated June 19, 1914 he wrote her: “If you had written poetry for six years without seeing a line of your work in print, would you not be a trifle impatient?” (qtd. in EW 146). Monroe was always more generous, writing that Bodenheim’s “irony is less bitter [than Eliot’s], sometimes almost humorous. It amuses him to search for the neat word, and fit it like an arrowhead to the keen shaft, and send the idea shooting into the heart of a stupid world. Sometimes it even pleases him to be serious, and write a love-poem or a death-poem as though he beautifully meant it” (FVMA 703). In midlife, he moved from Chicago to New York City, where he was eventually murdered. His attack on free verse, “A Reply to A.C.H.,” was published in 1919 (P 14.3). Some words from “Suffering,” part of his series Sketches in Color:
The morning lowers its fire-veined back
And quivers beneath the edged feet of winds:
So do you stoop to your agony. (P 8.2 73)
Joseph Campbell (1879-1944)—not the famous American mythologist who wrote the Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, but the Irish poet Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil who participated in the Easter Rising and fought in the Irish Civil War. His and Padraic Colum’s correspondence on “The Dead Irish Poets” (8.5) put into words the horror of the British response to the Easter Rising of 1916. His poem “The Puca,” like much of his work, is based upon Irish legend, here the shape-shifting fairy:
The Puca’s come again,
Who long was hid away
In cave or twilight glen:
Too shy, too proud to play
Under the eye of day. (P 3.2 50)
Skipwith Cannell (1887-1957) was an Imagist poet and one-time favorite of Ezra Pound, who initially published and promoted him. See his submissions in issues 4.2 and 6.3 and his Poems in Prose and Verse (2.5). “Ikons” provides a glimpse of his Imagistic technique:
Are little, silver fishes jumping in a row,
Little fishes leaping upon a black cloth. . . . (P 4.2 50)
The Italian poet Emanuel Carnevali (1897-1942) came to America at the beginning of the Great War in order to avoid conscription. He eventually became an associate editor of Poetry in 1919-20. Monroe published his sequences Splendid Commonplace (11.6), The Day of Summer (14.6) and Neuriade (19.3). There are some hints of Wallace Stevens in Carnevali’s “His Majesty the Letter-Carrier”:
Ah, there he is!
Who? . . . The letter-carrier, of course!
(What do you think I got up so early for?)
He is so proud
Because he’s got my happiness in that dirty bag:
He’s got a kiss from my sweetheart. . . . (P 11.6 299)
Padraic Colum (1881-1972) was an Irish playwright and mythologist. An important figure in the Irish Literary Revival, he was on the board of the Abbey Theatre with Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats. He was a lifetime friend of James Joyce. His work in Poetry ranges from ballad renderings of Irish songs to more loosely constructed private meditations (3.6, 8.5, 14.4). Here is an excerpt from the early contribution, “Three Irish Spinning Songs”:
An old woman sings:
There was an oul’ trooper went riding by
On the road to Carricknabauna,
And sorrow is better to sing than cry
On the way to Carricknabauna! (P 3.6 211)
Grace Hazard Conkling (1878-1958) and Hilda Conkling (1910-1986) were mother and daughter poets. As Monroe explained it, Grace Hazard “transcribes her [daughter’s] extraordinary improvisations,” which had been published every year in Poetry since Hilda was four years old (P 14.4 232). Both mother and daughter ended up teaching at Smith College. Grace Hazard Conkling’s “Symphony of a Mexican Garden,” in the first issue of Poetry, contains the varying cadences of a four-movement classical symphony. Her daughter’s poems vary similarly in sound. Here is a face of Hilda’s “Snow-Flake Song,” from the collection A Little Girl’s Songs:
Snowflakes come in fleets
Like ships over the sea.
The moon shines down on the crusty snow;
The stars make the sky sparkle like gold-fish in a glassy bowl. (P 14.4 207)
Babette Deutsch (1895-1982) was a poet, critic, and translator of Russian poetry. Her Poetry Handbook (1957) was influential both inside and outside the classroom for decades. The name of her collection, Semper Eadem, or “always the same,” was the motto of Queen Elizabeth I. Her poem “Knowledge” from that collection shows how emotions might be more complicated than they seem, even if they seem always the same:
And there is something difference understands
That peace knows nothing of.
It is the pain in pleasure that we seek
To kill with kisses, and revive
With other kisses;
For by our hurt we know we are alive. (P 18.4 193)
Iowa poet Arthur Davison Ficke (1883-1945), like T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens, studied under George Santayana at Harvard University. There, he also met his lasting friend and eventual poetic co-conspirator, Witter Bynner. He was close with Edgar Lee Masters and Edna St. Vincent Millay. In addition to his literary endeavors, he was an attorney and a Judge Advocate. With Bynner (then the editor of McClure’s), Ficke developed a new poetic movement, called the “Spectric School.” It wasn’t until April 25, 1918, that the Dial uncovered their whole vers librist movement as a hoax (not unlike the Sokal Hoax many years later). Poetry had accepted some of the faux poems, but hadn’t yet published them before the hoax was revealed. As Ellen Williams notes, Alice Corbin Henderson congratulated Poetry “on escaping the hoaxers, without revealing how narrow the margin of escape, and declared the joke rather pointless” (239). Fiske’s poems appear in issues 1.5, 5.6, 9.2, and 18.1. His first submission was an epic elegy to A. C. Swinburne:
The autumn dusk, not yearly but eternal,
Is haunted by thy voice,
Who turns his way far from the valleys vernal
And by dark choice
Disturbs those heights which from the low-lying land
Rise sheerly toward the heavens, with thee may stand. . . . (P 1.5 137)
John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950)—a “rebellious imagist” moved “to worship . . . the earth’s enormous pageantry” (P&TA 87)—was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He financially supported Pound’s section in the New Freewoman, a weekly literary magazine edited by Dora Marsden and owned by Harriet Shaw Weaver, which eventually became The Egoist—the very same journal that printed chapters of Joyce’s Portrait. Fletcher’s own poetic adventures began with Imagism, although eventually he returned to his Southern roots, and his autobiography reads like a modernist tell-all. Monroe described him as “essentially a landscape poet—landscapes of London streets as well as Mississippi banks and Arizona deserts, and including marine effects . . .” (FVMA 699). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and committed suicide a decade later. He published in Poetry often (7:4, 7:6, 11.3, 17:1, passim). His December 1913 submission “Irradiations” betrays how present determinations may hide within childhood hopes:
Oh, all you stars up yonder . . .
I hoped you would dance—but after twenty-six years,
I find you are determined to stay as you are
So I make it known to you, stars clustered or solitary,
That I want you to fall into my lap tonight. (P 3.3 89)
F. S. Flint (1885-1960) studied with Ezra Pound in T. E. Hulme’s Imagist group. Initially, he was close to Pound, but he eventually disputed the other’s claim to have invented Imagism. Flint’s essay on “Imagisme”—which many believe was written by Pound, and which was published in Poetry in March, 1913—provides a sort of manifesto for the movement. His “Four Poems in Unrhymed Cadence” (2.4) are interesting pieces, as is his set In London (7.5), which “Cones” is from:
The blue mist of after-rain
Fills all the trees;
The sunlight gilds the tops
Of the poplar spires, far off. (P 7.5 227)
Florence Kiper Frank (1885-1976), a popular playwright, was an interesting figure in the local culture of Chicago. Her poem “A Girl Strike-Leader” appeared in Upton Sinclair’s The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest (1915). She wrote often on the unspoken conditions of womanhood and ethnicity. Monroe reviewed her collection The Jew to Jesus and Other Poems, calling it “largely juvenilia” (P 8.5 265). Her verse-dialogue Women was published in the 21.2 issue of Poetry. The following is from her series New Life:
Ah, I am heavy now and patient,
Moving as the dumb, tamed animals move, ploddingly,
Burdened, burdened . . .
How shall I carry the burden of a soul! (P 11.3 136)
The versatile Jun Fujita (1888-1963) was a Japanese-American poet born near Hiroshima. He was a silent actor in many Chicago films and a famous photojournalist who captured photos of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago. His biography is long overdue. It was good to see, however, that Denis M. Garrison has recently edited a collection of Fujita’s tanka poems (Jun Fujita, Tanka Pioneer, 2007), some of which appeared originally in Poetry (18.3). Short and dense, like the haiku, the tanka brings a boundless meditation into the bounds of a moment’s thought. Consider, for example, “To Elizabeth”:
Against the door dead leaves are falling;
On your window the cobwebs are black.
Today, I linger alone.
A passer-by. (P 18.3 128)
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), a friend of Rupert Brooke, wrote war verse, even though he never saw action. One of his Battle poems, “The Going,” demonstrates the subtlety and quickness of the war experience:
I do not understand.
I only know
That he turned to go
And waved his hand,
In his young eyes a sudden glory shone:
And I was dazzled by a sunset glow,
And he was gone. (P 6.5 239)
Ben Hecht (1894-1964)—who Monroe called “a new adventurer” (P 11.5 285)—was one of the most remarkable figures to appear in the pages of Poetry. He was a Hollywood director and one of the most important screenwriters of all time, working on Underworld, Scarface, Stagecoach, Some Like It Hot, Gone with the Wind, His Girl Friday, Notorious, Monkey Business (the Cary Grant-Ginger Rogers-Marilyn Monroe film—not the Marx Brothers’ one), and A Farewell to Arms (to name more than a few). The list seems endless. His short story collection 1001 Afternoons in Chicago (1922) ought to be read more often. He published “Snow Monotones” in Poetry in February 1918, a decade before he would win the honor for best original script for Underworld at the first annual Academy Awards.
The night is not so silent as the snow
And yet the night is dark and mute and deep—
The faery strains that wander to and fro
Are what the night is dreaming in its sleep. (P 11.5 247)
Helen Hoyt [Lyman] (1887-1972) was an associate editor at Monroe’s journal, who saw poetry as a vehicle to escape male patriarchy. She was the aunt of Elinor Wylie (see below). Monroe described her verse and that of others: “Helen Hoyt, Eunice Tietjens, Marianne Moore . . . have exercised to the full a woman’s privilege of independent choice. Each has a strongly personal rhythm. . . . Helen Hoyt’s impassioned love-songs, Eunice Tietjens’ Profiles, Miss Moore’s icily acid reflections, all exist on their own rhythmic terms; each poet escaping into prose now and then but achieving poetry of singular precision in her happier moments” (FVMA 704). Her prolific verse includes Poems of Life and Death (6.5), City Pastorals (9.6), and The Harp (13.3). “The Letter” is from the second of these:
The words were beautiful,
Before I had read them.
I laid my fingers along the edges,
Over the fold your hands had folded—
I laid my face to the face of my letter. (P 9.6 282)
James Joyce (1882-1941), writer of such poems as “Tutto è Sciolto” and “Gas from a Burner,” also wrote a little modernist novel called Ulysses. Unfortunately for his reputation as a modernist poet, his verse never had a word out of place. “Alone” was published in 1917:
The moon’s soft golden meshes make
All night a veil;
The shore-lamps in the sleeping lake
Laburnum tendrils trail.
The sly reeds whisper in the night
A name—her name,
And all my soul is a delight,
A swoon of shame. (P 11.2 70)
[Alfred] Joyce Kilmer‘s (1886-1918) poem “Trees,” though anthologized today, didn’t have the best of critical receptions. In fact, it was the scourge of the New Critics—specifically Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in their influential book, Understanding Poetry—who despised its pedestrian sentiment. It would have been interesting to see how Kilmer, quickly becoming more and more popular, would have fared after the Great War, but he was sadly killed fighting for the Americans at the age of 31. “Trees” appeared in issue 2.5; it was followed by more poems in 4.1, 4.6, and 9.6. Interestingly enough, Helen Hoyt’s “Ellis Park” with a similar sound and theme (“Little park that I pass through, / I carry off a piece of you / Every morning hurrying down / To my work-day in the town”) appeared in the same issue directly before Kilmer’s poem.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. . . .
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree. (“Trees” P 2.5 160)
Alfred Kreymborg (1883-1966), an important modernist editor, published Others: A Magazine of New Verse from 1915 to 1919. The magazine was financed by Walter Arensberg, and its contributors included Williams, Stevens, Moore, Pound, Eliot, Lowell, H. D., Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, and the artists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Kreymborg and Alice Corbin Henderson often found themselves on opposite sides of the poetic spectrum, as did Kreymborg and Pound, who in his essay “Small Magazines” played the Queen’s Gambit: “I cannot see that Kreymborg has ever understood language. He is an excellent chess player. Chess is a highly conventionalized game. Each piece moves in a certain, set, determined way. Words do not function in this manner. They are like the roots of plants: they are organic, they interpenetrate and tangle with life, you cannot detach them as pieces of an anatomical figure” (701). Kreymborg and Monroe were fierce competitors, but they published each other’s work. We might think of this all as a type of nepotism, but I think, rather, that it shows, even among literary and personal rivals, a genuine desire to build a network of poetry and promote it rather than the poets themselves. Kreymborg’s Toadstools series was printed in 1917:
I have been a snob today;
Scourge me with a thousand thongs!
The crowds that passed me atoms were:
Plunge me into a vat of tar!
Love was dead all day. (“Love Was Dead All Day,” P 10.1 27)
Harold Monro (1879-1932) was another major modernist figure, often overlooked because he operated behind the scenes. He ran the Poetry Bookshop in London, which published Pound’s Des Imagistes anthology, and he had a hand in publishing such journals as The Poetry Review and Georgian Poetry. Like her relationship with Kreymborg, Monroe’s relationship with Monro was touch-and-go. She wrote to him, protesting that he was focusing too much on reviews rather than on poetry (see Grant 42-43). He responded that one could not “expect the public to turn over piles of rubbish to find something for itself,” because it “need[ed], above all, a direction” (APL 255). His poem “Introspection” mixes curiosity and confession:
The house across the road is full of ghosts.
The windows, all inquisitive, look inward.
All are shut.
I’ve never seen a body in the house.
Have you? Have you? (P 15.6 298)
Ernest Rhys (1859-1946) was part of the “Rhymer’s Club” in London. He was the initial head-editor of Knopf’s Everyman’s Library. “April Romance,” published by Monroe in the spring of 1916, carries a meditative tone:
I understood each thing
The leaf says to the flower when, both adoring,
See like themselves, leaf-shaped and flower-painted,
The sun descend, to bathe in painted shade. (P 8.1 2)
Lola Ridge (1873-1941)—the Irish-Australian-New York poet, socialist, and feminist—had an altogether different twentieth-century voice, which is, fortunately, now undergoing recovery. Alfred Kreymborg’s review of Ridge’s The Ghetto and Other Poems was published in Poetry in March 1919 (13.6). Ridge’s own reviews were published in issues 17.6 and 20.2. Her poems, such as those in the Chromatics series, are to New York what Sandburg’s poems are to Chicago. They are stark, loud, and precise.
That day in the slipping of torsos and straining flanks,
On the bloodied ooze of fields, plowed by iron . . .
Do you remember how we heard
All the Red cross bands on Fifth Avenue . . .
And the harsh and terrible screaming,
And that strange vibration at the roots of us—
Desire, fierce like a song? (“The Song,” P 13.1 26)
Like so many artists of his era, Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)—a Jewish poet from London, with roots in Lithuania—was taken before his time. “Mr. Isaac Rosenberg, formerly a student of the Slade School of Art in London,” as Poetry introduced him, had become “a member of the British army in France” (P 9.3 163). Monroe published his “Trench Poems” at the end of 1916. They spoke of the “iron cloud” and the “the torn fields of France.” Rosenberg “had mailed her his ‘somber trench poems, sent on ragged scraps of paper’” (Niven 258). Just over a year later, he was killed fighting in the trenches. His “Break of Day in the Trenches” is, perhaps, one of the most influential poems of the war. Its speaker is a little more complicated than we might take him to be on first glance:
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass:
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life;
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France. (P 9.3 129)
James Stephens (1882-1950), the Irish poet and Celtic mythologist, was a friend of James Joyce. Joyce considered him as a possible completer of Finnegans Wake, should he prove unable to finish it. Like Yeats, Stephens was a collector of Celtic mythology, often invoking it in his works. Much of his work, like “Dark Wings,” haunts:
Sing while you may, O bird upon the tree! . . .
The day and thee and miserable me
Dark wings shall cover up and hide away
Where no song stirs of bird or memory:
Sing while you may. (P 4.5 194)
“Ajan Syrian” (1887-?)—named initially with the quotation marks and later without them—is described by Monroe as “a rug-dealer in New York. . . . [b]orn . . . on the Syrian desert” (P 12.5 289). His collection From the Near East (12.5) and his poems “I Sing of My Life while I Live It: The Syrian Lover in Exile Remembers Thee, Light of My Land” and “Alma Mater: The Immigrant at Columbia” (6.3) mix nostalgia and wonder. “Alma Mater,” about his time at Columbia University, shows the strength of poetry to push across cultural and geographic borders:
From the red, red dust, the long dead dust
Of ancient Syria, I come . . .
To see thy laureled head—
Massive, calm, with gloried brow—
Flame before the open portals of the House of Books;
Where the thoughts of noble men—
Dressed in all habits, speaking all tongues,
Gathered from all ages of time—
Meet like pilgrims at one shrine. . . . (P 6.3 110-11)
Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), who won what would later become the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, is also experiencing a serious critical rereading. Her work seems simple, but that may be misleading. She offered a perspective about female experiences that was unmatched in much of her contemporaries’ work. Early in life, she had been close to Vachel Lindsay who had proposed to her. She killed herself in 1933, just a year after Lindsay’s own suicide. Her collection Memories (14.6) shows her range as a poet. “Debt,” an earlier work, shows her sharpness:
What do I owe to you
Who loved me deep and long?
You never gave my spirit wings
Nor gave my heart a song.
But oh, to him I loved,
Who loved me not at all,
I owe the little open gate
That led through heaven’s wall. (P 3.6 200)
Eunice Tietjens (1884-1944)—the writer, poet, and one-time war correspondent— became an associate editor at Poetry. She wrote often, both critically and creatively, and found herself leaning more toward Carl Sandburg’s aesthetic than that of T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. She was the widow of Paul Tietjens, who wrote the musical score for The Wizard of Oz and co-produced the musical with L. Frank Baum (in the Emerald City of Chicago). The following excerpt, from “Parting After a Quarrel,” is out of the larger collection Facets:
Then all the air was thick
With my last words that seemed to leap and quiver.
And in my heart I heard the little click
Of a door that closes—quietly, forever. (P 14.5 244)
Allen Upward (1863-1926), a lawyer and judge, wrote the philosophical work The New Word. He wrote regularly for the New Age and published widely. Ezra Pound became a big admirer when he came across Upward’s “Scented Leaves—from a Chinese Jar,” which were a series of poems translated from the Chinese. Pound convinced him to publish his work in Poetry. It jibed well with what would quickly become Pound’s fascination with Ernest Fenollosa. Like Pound’s “translations,” though, Upward’s were what we might call “loose,” mostly made-up from recollections (Carpenter 218). The “Scented Leaves” poems were published in September of 1913 (2.6). The following sestet is from Upward’s sonnet “Finis”:
There is no love but first love; all beside
Is passion’s lightning or affection’s moon.
I floated once on that triumphant tide.
But stranded now among the wrecks and spars
I watch the night succeed the afternoon,
And bide my sleep beneath the ancient stars. (P 8.2 62)
Arthur Waley (1889-1966), friends with many in the Bloomsbury circle, also translated Chinese poetry. Although he took his own liberties with the texts, his renderings were more faithful than those of Upward or Pound. He translated the great poet Li Bai [Li Po], Confucius, and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power). “On Finding a Hairpin in a Disused Well,” a sixth-century poem of T’ang Seng-ch’i, was included with Waley’s collection Chinese Poems (11.4):
Once a girl was gathering flowers. . . .
And she looked at herself in the well-water.
Long she looked and couldn’t stop,
Laughing and laughing at her own beauty,
Till one of her golden pins fell out
And there in the well it has lain ever since. . . .
The person who wore it is dead and gone;
What was the use of the thing lasting? (P 11.4 198)
John Hall Wheelock‘s (1886-1978) musically-oriented poetry was a favorite of Monroe. He was born on Long Island, New York, and he attended Harvard University where he befriended the soon-to-be literary critic Van Wyck Brooks. Wheelock won the Bollingen Prize in 1962. “Beethoven,” like much of his other early work, celebrates the range of sounds Wheelock admired in others:
Behold the tormented and the fallen angel
Wandering disconsolate the world along,
That seeks to atone with inconsolable anguish
For some old grievance, some remembered wrong;
To storm heaven’s iron gates with angry longing,
And beat back homeward in a shower of song! (P 7.2 77)
(Arthur) Yvor Winters (1900-1968) was a poet, literary critic, and one-time assistant editor of Poetry. He won the Bollingen Prize in 1961. His literary criticism was influential and controversial: R. W. Emerson was “a sentimental philosopher with a genius for a sudden twisted hardness of words” (P 19.5 278); Emily Dickinson was “a prophet of unspeakable doom,” and “a spinster who may have written her poems to keep time with her broom. A terrible woman, who annihilated God as if He were her neighbor, and her neighbor as if he were God” (279). And he liked Dickinson! Winters’s criticism was often leveled at modes of unreason. His “crying need for a Poets’ Handbook of Science,” for example, takes issue with expired poetic licenses. “W . R. Benét, for instance, should be informed that bats do not hang in barns at night, that they fly around at night and hang there in the day-time; Lola Ridge that palms do not grow on mesas, that jaguars do not inhabit deserts, etc., etc.” (P 14.6 346). Issue 14.6 of Poetry contains Winters’s Monodies, and the selection in 20.6 gives us glimpses of Winters’s seasons. His book reviews started appearing in the journal in 1922. The following quote, from “The Far Voice,” is characteristic of his terse verse lines:
Roads lie in dust—
White, curling far away;
And summer comes. (P 17.3 142)
Edith Wyatt (1894-1968) was a poet, novelist, and critic, who served on the advisory board of Poetry during its early years. Her essay “Poetry and Criticism” (4.6) takes issue with petty critics who would, for example, pick out and excoriate Shakespeare for his mixed metaphors. Her poems weren’t published as often as those of other members of the Poetry office, say Helen Hoyt, but she often contributed essays and reviews—all of which are worth considering. “City Whistles” was officially dedicated to Monroe, but it could be read as a dedication to the city of Chicago as well:
Down the midland mists at twilight, have you heard their singing sweep,
Where their far-toned voices, many-chorded, buoy—
And our mortal ways in wonder hail creation’s unknown deep—
“Siren ship! Silver ship! Sister ship, ahoy!” (P 9.3 115)
Elinor Wylie (1885-1928), novelist and poet, was a friend of Edmund Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, and John Dos Passos. She was an admirer of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her biography interestingly runs close to his. She was critically acclaimed during her time and died young. A formalist poet who never took form for granted, she was a big influence on James Merrill and one of his favorites. She is one of my favorites too. Her poem “Atavism,” published in 1921, plays upon poetic tradition and the expectations of the sonnet form as much as it plays upon the anticipations of the reader. The sonnet’s turn comes when we expect it, but it still takes us by surprise:
I always was afraid of Somes’s Pond:
Not the little pond, by which the willow stands,
Where laughing boys catch alewives in their hands
In brown, bright shallows; but the one beyond.
There, when the frost makes all the birches burn
Yellow as cow-lilies, and the pale sky shines
Like a polished shell between black spruce and pines,
Some strange thing tracks us, turning where we turn. (P 18.1 21)
In 2003, Poetry magazine received a $100 million grant from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, along with a promise that more was to come. While it is tempting to say that the staggeringly large endowment was a testament to how important poetry had become in the century after Monroe first published her journal, we know that isn’t quite the case. The shock of the news shows that poetry still isn’t what most people think of when giving away $100 million dollars. The news, however, was a testament to how important Monroe’s journal had become in the cultural world of America. “Without Poetry,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “the poem like the wild pigeon would have remained among us no more than an official memory” (qtd. in Whittemore 8).
The Modernist Journals Project (MJP) has been acting as a similar sentry for modernism, hoping not only to continue to promote poetry, but also to preserve the legacy of what poetry meant a hundred years ago. Such an awareness is still critical for our contemporary cultures, and it might shed some light on the aesthetic conventions and innovations we take for granted today. At the heart of the MJP is the belief that a greater understanding of literary history depends upon examining how it was mediated by its periodical forms. Ezra Pound recognized that the “history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines” (702). What Pound didn’t understand was that, as Jayne Marek writes, “[t]he personalities of editors”—importantly female ones—“like those of the writers and artists who opened the doors of experimentation, became central to the dynamics of modernist publishing” (Women 3). For Pound, the “significance of the small magazine has, obviously, nothing to do with format ” (Pound 689). As the MJP reveals, however, it had everything to do with format. Too often we focus on the events of history rather than the moments that make such events possible. Modernism was—is—dynamic. Writers reacted to other writers who were already, as I wrote earlier, enmeshed in a web of personalities, politics, and poetics. Teaching modernism means teaching the complexity of the moments of a historical culture; it means getting enmeshed in the very same web of culture. The teaching section of the MJP offers wonderful suggestions on how to work with the archive. To these wonderful ideas, I would add a prompt on how to get productively lost in the web of modernism. Why, for example, did William Carlos Williams write to Harriet Monroe to try to get her to reconsider not not-publishing Alfred Kreymborg’s and Maxwell Bodenheim’s poems, and what did this all have to do with one of Alice Corbin Henderson’s snarky reviews?
This is not only about recognizing some intriguing coincidences, say, that Ezra Pound, “Dryad” (H. D.), and William Carlos Williams spent time together as undergraduates in Pennsylvania, or that Pound and Yeats were tramping about together at Thoor Ballylee in 1914 and 1915, or even that Pound’s mother-in-law’s cousin (Lionel Johnson of the “Rhymers’ Club”) had a friend named Yeats, who ended up having an affair with Pound’s mother-in-law (Olivia Shakespear). It means acknowledging the fundamental happenstances of modernist culture; it means seeing that, not unlike today, why, how, where, and if poets were getting published often depended upon quid-pro-quos and settling old scores. Suzanne W. Churchill and Adam McKible remind us how, exactly, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” first appeared to the public—not as the great modernist poem of existential grief, not as the 20th-century version of the split lyric self, but as a work embedded “in the literary and social discourses, political debates, and historical events of the day . . . as part of the larger dialogue of modernity”:
Indeed, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was first published in the June 1915 Poetry, alongside poems by Bliss Carman, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Skipwith Cannell—poets who were, according to the editors, “well known to our readers.” Eliot, in contrast, was introduced as “a young American poet resident in England, who has published nothing hitherto in this country.” First billing was given to the exotic free verse landscapes of the Syrian-born immigrant, Ajan Syrian. Eliot’s poem appears last, tucked between a selection of conventional rhymed lyrics by Dorothy Dudley, Georgia Wood Pangbom, and William Griffith, and a prose section that included a eulogy for Rupert Brooke, a “symbol of the waste of war,” and reviews of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology and Some Imagist Poems—An Anthology. (5)
Churchill and McKible show how, when looking to find Eliot, we can get as lost as Prufrock. But it is not only about getting lost within periodicals. It is about getting lost across them. What was happening in Masters’s Anthology? What was being included in Some Imagist Poems . . . and, just as importantly, why? Despite the rivalries and constant bickering among the editors, subscribers, and poets of the various journals, the hopes of one journal always rested on the shoulders of the other. “Success to them all!” Monroe wrote in “Our Contemporaries”:
It is the little magazines which should be encouraged and subscribed for. The great magazines are mostly engaged in the same game—that of getting a million readers. But each magazine represents someone’s enthusiasm for a cause or an art. It represents self-sacrifice, courage, some vital principle. The Liberator, beginning in a garret, ended by freeing the slaves. POETRY or one of these others, beginning in a dream, will end by freeing American literature. (P 6.6 317)
Perhaps Monroe was overstating her case, perhaps not. But for one who, in Timothy Newcomb’s words, “pioneered the rhetorical self-fashioning of the modern American avant-garde, celebrating the young and the new, welcoming experimental forms and outsider subject positions, and defining itself in antagonistic opposition to an anti-modern national tradition,” dreaming large was never off the mark (94).
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