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Molly McQuade
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My dear Miss Monroe, The centennial anniversary of Poetry magazine's founding was at hand, some months ago. What was I to do about it? Well, write. Write, of course, about you. But no one wanted it. I tried wherever I could think of: book publishers, who roundly insisted that a book about you would never sell. A New York literary agent, who informed me that, unless I could uncover a great love affair for you with an even more prominent and famous person, my project would never find a home. Was the secret lover to be William Jennings Bryan, I wonder? Or Jane Addams? I also tried the quarterly literary journals. The various literary websites. The poetry advocacy organizations, which did not seem ready, willing, or able to "advocate" for Harriet. A second literary agent, who advised that I might have hard work to do in order to overcome the impression you had left behind of having lived a rather "dull" daily life. (Bobo, whose life isn't?) Eventually I also tried the poets themselves, who tend to react in one of two ways to you now, Harriet. Poets tend to react with a vague disdain for Miss Monroe's supposedly slow-witted, or uncaring, treatment of poets and their poetry. (They may mask their disdain with boredom.) Or, poets tend to react with fear of Miss Monroe's current-day Poetry Foundation. For yes, my dear Miss Mionroe, your magazine has survived you in such a way as to outdo even your most militant triumphalist fantasies. Your desire for a future in poetry for all poets, potentially, although sometimes mocked in your day, has come to be. Your magazine has continued without interruption, published monthly since its first issue. And Poetry still pays poets to publish their poetry, which for you was both an innovation and a sticking point. For poets it remains something of a rarity. In addition, one might say that Poetry was the harbinger of a gradually developing national (and international) poetry "business," owed partly to you and to Poetry, which now includes an extensive educational infrastructure, widespread grant funding for poets, an array of poetry prizes, and the publicity and public programming to go with these. You'd be shocked--pleasantly--by it. And then, there is the Poetry windfall: an act of favor methodically conferred upon Poetry in very much the Chicago way. In 2001, the heiress to a midwestern fortune, Ruth Lilly, who loved poetry (and wrote it), chose to bequeath the fortune to your enduring storefront. The sum would have astounded you perhaps more than anyone: an estimated $100 million, to be disbursed over a period of two or three decades. This may well promise us a Poetry in perpetuity, with expanded programs, now a new building of its own for the first time, and whatever a foundation president, editors, staff, board, readers, and writers may imagine for it. But something bothers me about all this. It is, as I've said already: people seem to fear poetry. More to the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, The train got stuck, stopped, could not start again, and we the passengers were called to evacuate it. But I made my way anyhow in another train through a lot of stops with names like Odenton, where abandoned toilets enjoy free range in the backyards, to the Library of Congress--just to meet you. Just to hear Harriet speak. It took me a while. "I have no idear when you will arrive," announced the train conductor helpfully to us in his Southern twang. He looked like a pregnant male boar. But on the trip at least I also saw an eagle. The eagle's head and neck were showy white as snowbound Maine clapboard. His bib and body: charcoal black. His back was turned toward me. The urgency of position and posture as he perched on an evergreen told me, this is a useful soloist. So were you, I think. Visiting the grave of your archive, though, was a little different. Mist seemed to sink the Capitol. Indoors, the Library of Congress architect (if there ever was one) appeared to conceive of the place, especially its below-ground "C" level, as a dim, sealed, top-secret bunker; as a mountain railroad tunnel, minus screeching, rusted traffic. True, the aggressive swoon of lofty florescence may bar roaches. (Or, entice them.) The smudgy, blameless off-white corridors, stretching endless, without a scrap of signage save for office room numbers, inscribed on tiny doomy door plaques, would seem to ban the writer from the premises. Except for one small problem: all the books and words by and for and with and to and from the writers are stored here, of all places. Why not put up a picture in the halls? Then, another? Why not post some large-scale building maps to help us hapless wanderers, or even a few interactive smart-boards? Yes, there are workers, said to work here, like ripe, toddling Kafkas. Still, the steadfast vacancy of their habitat--doesn't it erase them, or threaten to? Just down the Mall from here in a museum recently the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective serenely went kapow. Indeed, the library could hire a squad of graffiti artists to swarm the hallway pallor. Will they ever? Until then, we walk through places where we'd rather not. Getting lost at the library, as I do and will and did, at least means I believed I could. Sincerely, Somebody My dear Miss Monroe, As I learned later, the office of XYZ could not be sure, they assured me, that the digitized audiotape facsimile of the voice I sought (your own) could be located, that day or any other. The librarian was a nice guy. But he also discovered that his office had lost its computer network connection only seconds before I walked in, which meant there was no way as yet for me to ascertain on what day, if ever, I might be able to listen to Harriet speak. I waited, and they waited, and for all of us you also... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, Anyway, what did you write? Much of it was resented or pilloried by your fellow writers. But poets could only resent Miss Monroe's poetry fairly if they chose first to read it. And evidently they do not. Your volume, Chosen Poems (Macmillan, 1935), collecting your own favorites from your books to date at the age of seventy-five, has been checked out by borrowers from Columbia University's Butler Library for a grand total of five times in the last twenty years, when I last looked. I have chosen Columbia as a measuring stick of your prevalent unpopularity not only because this university offers a large undergraduate and graduate English program, but also a well-established M. F. A. in creative writing program, as well as an esteemed sister institution, Barnard College. The fact that so few readers have chosen to read you should go far to suggest the immemorial dust that has come to coat Miss Monroe's poems. Is the dust just, and did Harriet anticipate its silent future downpour? Perhaps tellingly, the volume's introduction is not called that. Instead, you gave it the title of "Apologia," and in it you freely admit, "I offer apologies that this book is not full of masterpieces. Would it were worthier of me . . . ." That is a curious comment, since in it Monroe the editor seems to detach herself from Monroe the writer, finding in the writer much to disappoint. And yet, the poet herself may feel none of that regret. The two selves, the poetry editor and the poet, therefore may have called a kind of truce. For if Monroe the editor found the contents not to her liking, and if the editor were assumed to prevail in editing Chosen Poems, then that book might never have been published: the editor would have forbidden it. But if, on the other hand, the poet took charge of assembling the volume, then the book would not only have been published. The editor would also have been banished from making belittling comments in the introduction. The presence of poet and editor together in the pages of your prose preface implies that one will let the other live, so as not to bear the grievous blame for killing another off. In such ways did you maintain a difficult balance. Sincerely, Somebody My dear Miss Monroe, Even so, let's consider your plaint again in your preface: "Would it [Chosen Poems] were worthier of me . . . ." If she the poet has failed to write masterpieces worthy of "me," then Miss Monroe's "me" must be the editor, and not the writer. And if the provisional unitary "me" is indeed an editor, and not a poet--and not, either, a hybrid of them both--then what hope could Miss Monroe pretend to give herself or her poetry? The editor would be assumed to rule. The editor, harshly fair or fairly harsh, did not care how the poet felt, or with what pangs the poems... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, Of course, my letters to you are a kind of work-in-progress. Even by now, you barely know me, and I haven't quite explained exactly why I want to write to you. With that in mind, let me confess something before I bid you a goodbye, later today, temporarily. (Surely, I'll write to you again.) My confession: I write to you because I like to read your letters, as well (of course) as read the letters that were written to you. The letter is an unappreciated form. Usually it's reckoned as informal, except when writers go to it with a formal purpose. Usually it's considered as incidental, unless composed on important stationery. The letter is most often interstitial: it plays and works in between, in back of, inside of, always peripheral. But being interstitial means a letter, or the work and play of letters plural, can and does command a furtive pathway of complex, integral connection unavailable to anyone who writes anything that is not a letter. Being interstitial also means we have to work for it, without assurance of a find or a finished product. Letters may include unsuspected secrets. Regardless, to close readers they may yield unexpected insights. Why? Because writing a letter meant mainly for just one person can prompt a carelessly subjective intelligence: careless of whatever might be the letter's broader reception, for few will probably read it. Careless (relatively) of the need to plot or politick in a letter, for much the same reason. Careless of the worldly consequences for the writer of the letter. But caring, all the same, for the writing as a forthrightly intimate exchange with someone, not another. In a letter, one can assume a listener. I am the first, if not the last, for myself when I write a letter to you. In a letter, may I say farewell, for now, to a writer's cyncism? Sincerely, Somebody Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, Ezra Pound was the one with whom you may have fought most memorably while you were the founding editor of Poetry and he was the magazine's foreign editor. Maybe you fought most memorably with him because of Pound, or maybe it was because of you. Did you hate him? Did he hate you? Yes, there were other antagonists. But when I happen to mention to a noted Pound scholar that lately I've been paying close attention to Harriet Monroe, the tall man only stoops and titters. His amused contempt for you is amazing. Normally, he is the king of cool. Pound wasn't. When you wrote to him on August 7, 1912, inviting him to submit his poems to your as-yet-unpublished new magazine of poetry, he replied promptly, "I am interested." He asserted that your "scheme" for a journal was "not only sound, but the only possible method." He claimed that there was nothing else like it already. He declared that of American magazines in general, none "is not an insult to the serious artist and to the dignity of his art." In other words, he acclaimed in stringent terms a magazine (yours) before there ever was one. He warned you, too. He insisted that "during my last tortured visit to America I found no writers and but one reviewer who had any worthy conception of poetry." Pound admonished, as well, that it might be impossible to "teach the American poet that poetry is an art, an art with a technique . . . ." Was it clear from the beginning, then, that nothing and no one was likely to measure up to his hopes? I think it was. Sincerely, Somebody My dear Miss Monroe, If you couldn't measure up to his hopes, then how would you ever work with Ezra Pound as your foreign editor at Poetry? The answer: since you met him only once, you would write him letters, and he would write you letters. The experience of reading these letters now, even if only selectively, differs dramatically from reading any other letters I know. For one thing, the element of contrast--contrast in your tone and his, in your character and his, in your taste and his, even in penmanship--sets yours apart from his, and his apart from yours, with a musical fervor. But as the pages turn and far-off years pass, the two of you seem more and more to be uncommonly well matched. You weren't supposed to be, were you? Indeed, you commented to T. S. Eliot frankly in 1934, ". . . I don't wonder that you find Pound's letters 'mysterious' and that 'little emerges in apprehensible form.' Those he sends me are incredibly violent and abusive, but I am used to that and usually don't mind." You often wrote to Pound in neatly typed, concise paragraphs. Pound often wrote back to you with pulpy black ink in words as boldly vertical as they were extravagantly horizontal. His handwriting cantered. It looks... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, With a covetous zeal, you valued the hate mail you received. For decades you stashed it all in a file, labeled "knocks." The knocks now bring stray, sundry dead readers back to life in oddly flamboyant, unguarded performances, as though the audience for American poetry surely could strike back. Wrote one Walter Surrey in an undated letter to yourself: "I think, indeed I know, that there are poets in America, but I make the assertion that they knock in vain and will continue to knock in vain at the gate of Miss Harriet Monroe, in whose magazine from the beginning I challenge you to find . . . a single poem which can justly be called great when measured by the standards of literature, of beauty, of philosophic thought, and of originality." No less than The Dial magazine seemed to agree with Mr. Surrey, calling your periodical "an impudent affront to the poetry loving public." [sic] In reply to The Dial's attack, an editorial in the Chicago Record Herald produced another: "If Poetry [magazine] is no good, just step on the insect; don't try to knock it out with a succession of body blows." [sic] Sometimes, your knocks came from rather lofty place. On September 14, 1914, you received a knock from the dean of a Chicago cathedral, the Reverend Walter Taylor Summer: "My dear Miss Monroe-- . . . How two-thirds of the poetry that has appeared [in Poetry] could be reckoned as poetry or as containing anything particularly inspiring, is beyond me. As I can't adapt myself to it, and it only irritates me to think I can't, I am going to escape making myself unhappy trying to understand it--by ceasing to read it." The Reverend added, "I really cannot stand . . . Ezra Pound." Pound, who then served as Poetry's foreign editor, often couldn't stand the magazine, either. On August 9, 1915, you received a knock from S. R. Floraunce, cashier of the Webster County Bank in Red Cloud, Nebraska: "Gentlemen: I am in receipt of the August number of Poetry, and herewith enclose draft of .15 [cents] to pay for same. When I subscribed I was under the impression that the magazine was devoted to poetry, but find I was mistaken. Please pardon the error, and drop my name from your list." Would-be writers also raged, producing knocks. A poet writing from St. Louis in 1913 told you off: "Dear Madam. I have all of my manuscript back from you. Why inclose the duping, brassy lie? You neither 'thank' me, nor did the Mss have any 'consideration' at your hands, nor have you the slightest 'regret' that you 'cannot make use of it.' The lie is paltry. I shall send you no more, not because my poems are not meritorious, for they compare more than favorably with ANYTHING you have published." [sic] At an undated moment, Miss Monroe was to console herself: "This magazine brings the poets together, so that they... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, As the founding editor of Poetry, you wanted to discover whatever you could not make or do yourself. Would the poets hinder you, or help? Some might help and others hinder. Some reached toward you, with a kind of warmth. Others kicked and grumbled, in retreat. Some were able to work quite serenely with Miss Monroe on revising their poems, almost as her coeditors. Others staged all manner of revolt. The reclusive and itinerant American poet Laura Riding, for instance, changed addresses so often that we read her correspondence with you, over the years, as if peering from afar at a flock of one. Meanwhile, Riding seemed to seclude herself in her poetry. Her long poem, "Body's Head," led off the November 1925 issue of Poetry, and suggests the author's queenly reticence in the first few lines of fifteen adroitly overflowing stanzas: "Separate and silk, / A scarf unwoven, / Thin enough to keep a little of it-- / A little less brown the earth would be / If rain changed from silver to gold-- / Lean out anxiously over my forehead, / Trembling and giddy and falling / At the top of skyscraper me." Wrapped in tresses, Riding's persona here looms large, "skyscraper me." But only a year earlier, when first submitted to Poetry, her poem extended some six dozen lines further than it would, eventually, in the magazine. After more than a decade of working as Poetry's editor-in-chief, Miss Monroe evidently felt confident enough to ask Riding to cut the poem by one third as a condition of accepting "Body's Head" for publication. As detailed in surviving letters written by Riding to her editor in the spring and summer of 1924, the editorial suggestions did not stop there. Along with shaking excess ripples from Riding's poem, you recommended other changes, too: things considered, discussed and, for the most part, accepted by Riding as she went to work on the revision. Although not known to posterity for a conciliatory temperament, the twenty-three-year-old Riding seemed to find the tampering pencil of her sixty-three-year-old editor worthwhile, somehow. Miss Monroe had already published Riding, who was then called Laura Gottschalk, thanks to her husband of the time. The January 1924 issue of Poetry contains Riding's "The City of Cold Women," a poem in seven parts, occupying three pages of the magazine. Still, this poem is patently less ambitious than "Body's Head," which when published in Poetry ran for eight pages and 191 lines, unusually long by the magazine's standards. Your demand of Riding to shorten her manuscript by a third was therefore not surprising. Still, shortening it might have circumvented the scope of the poem. In "Body's Head," a mind talks to itself from within a world of its own. But the mind seems curious to know more than it can. Reading Riding's poem in its early draft, we find the poem turning an eye ambitiously on whatever lies outside the self while still attached to it, letting... Continue reading
Posted Feb 6, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My dear Miss Monroe, I believe you never would have built Poetry magazine without having seen firsthand what it was like to rebuild Chicago, a burned city. How did you build Poetry? Only after the hither and thither of energetic failure. You weren't well educated, except in the sense that they let you read anything you wanted in your father's library. You were not welcomed into a profession. As a feeble-bodied teenager, you were thrust instead, on doctor's orders, into a convent school boasting a mild climate. There the nuns were to "finish" you. (Same thing happened to the future Mrs. Potter Palmer, a fellow alumna and grand dame of Chicago.) Yes, the Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., gave you nuns. You were not a Catholic. Nor were many of your fellow students. But your education there was Catholic amid the bricks and mortar of Georgetown, that wealthy nook. I've lurked on cobblestone for long enough there to chase your old haunts. Did the hilly views of that town's very worldly world help to inspire you, away from home for the first time? And then, the nuns, the teachings, rules, the other girls: they gave you something to think about and maybe something to think against. Later you wrote, "For a time I was a queer little rebellious fish in these strange waters, refusing to get in line, arguing against the rosary." Learning to say no, did you learn something true and useful for the future? One of your surviving convent-school report cards concludes with the important subject "conduct," after covering forty-six other subjects, from orthography (your grade for that was "generally correct") to Latin (your work showed "great improvement"). Yet with "conduct" your high marks took a fall. For "conduct" you received the mere rating of "satisfactory." Did that disappoint you, or did it please you? Maybe Latin mattered more to you than conduct. The same was true of your editorial collaborator Ezra Pound, years ahead. Did a taste for disobedience ally you with him in the magazine work you were to share? Although I haven't heard this before, I'm tempted to believe it. In Georgetown you wrote some of your first poems, thanks to your favorite nun, the "elusive, imaginative, temperamental" Sister Mary Paulina Finn, who taught English. (Nuns were domiciled near the school, and some taught at it.) You preferred writing poetry to various other assignments required of the students, such as "painting rigid flowers on satin boxes." Sister Paulina told you fifty years later, in 1928, "I like your own prose best of all you print in POETRY." [sic] She commented, "Your review of about ten books of verse . . . was a model of brief criticism, still briefer quotation, reflection, patience, and to me, most of all, a certain humane pathos, in which you may not agree with me." Sister Paulina also had a question for you. "[W]ere you ever arrrested by a sudden thought that you stood still--fixed to the ground for a... Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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My dear Miss Monroe, Were you, founder of Poetry magazine in 1912, a good editor? Now, we cannot see straight through to you. After all is said and done, your very own poets have come to obscure you. They got in your way (sometimes). Even today, they get in ours. Ironically, Miss Harriet Monroe has become well known for imposing her will as an editor on poets who were often quite reluctant to receive it. Their complaints, some shy of a century old, still rustle in the contemporary ear--whispered betimes by living poets, some of whom are no more friendly to editors, dead or alive, than any other poets were. Did your own poets resent you slightly less for your editing than for your poetry? Like their own, it staked a fragile claim upon a culture, as much poetry seems to do. Yet if their editor wrote but poorly, or even if she wrote no more than adequately, then could she edit other poets and their poetry with authority, or without? Unlike them, as an editor Harriet chose to publish her own poetry in her own magazine, and also chose which of her poems to publish, with a compound tenacity. Miss Monroe's power seemed to overwhelm theirs. Or did it, finally? We know you as a doughty and well-disciplined sole proprietor in 2013, slightly more than a century after Poetry's first year. We know your spectacles, your thin lips unsmiling for the portraitist. We also know of your penchant for discovery. Sincerely, Somebody My dear Miss Monroe, Shall we begin with the wind? In Chicago, your town, wind has a certain history. A nineteenth-century visitor, Albert Lea, knew that wind, and commented in the Freeborn County Standard: "Walk past the Masonic Temple or the Auditorium any day even though it may be perfectly calm elsewhere, and you will meet with a lively breeze at the base of the building that will compel you to put your hand to your hat." He observed, too, "Chicago has been called the 'windie' city, the term being used metaphorically to make out that Chicagoans were braggarts." He added, with a purpose, "As usual, people go to extremes in this thing also, and one can tell a stranger almost anything about Chicago today and feel that he believes it implicitly." At the corner of Chicago and wind, the famous Drake Hotel will be found to catch on its abraded sides every lick and pellet of Chicago's breath: tatterdemalion shivers of spring; moist guff, in summer; autumn catarrh; in winter, fury and contempt (these ease apart, like melting ice, into sub-genres). Fury and contempt: the city fathers have sometimes chosen to rig up ropes against these flaws of weather, along iced-in sidewalks, for us to grip as we pedestrians wobble into shops, hospitals, offices. They could do nothing less. Winter citizens of Chicago, otherwise how would you walk? While husbanding your mercantile heat, so sought by this wind? While filching, while filched, while fidgeting? Wool won't... Continue reading
Posted Feb 4, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Jan 30, 2013