Arguing over poetry's cultural relevance is a little like debating the potential effects of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, says Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman. “For many people, poetry will remain remote, inaccessible and on the same plane of perception as that Arctic refuge,” Wiman contends. “But who knows by what unconscious routes poetry is reaching into lives that seem to have nothing to do with it?”
In other words, you don't have to be an Alaskan caribou to be affected by oil rigs carving up a pristine patch of wilderness. We're all touched by events, experiences, words in ways we'd never expect and may never completely understand.
So it is with poetry.
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"There is such a thing as a collective unconscious," Wiman says. "There is such a thing as a spirit of place, and it reaches beyond geography."
Poetry's relevance, then, is both impossible to measure and, largely, beside the point. It can't be tallied in box office receipts or lofty prizes — nor should it.
What it can be is crafted and pored over and buoyed. For the past century, Poetry magazine has been doing just that — supporting and contributing to the art form by discovering new poets and showcasing recognized talents. Its pages have ushered in the artful careers of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gwendolyn Brooks. The modest magazine has served as a salon for poets and their fans. It has given writers and readers a monthly dose of what Wiman calls "mastery and mystery."
To mark Poetry's centennial — the magazine was founded in October 1912 — Wiman and senior editor Don Share read through 100 years of poems ("some 300,000," Wiman estimates) to create an anthology, "The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine," published by University of Chicago Press.
It includes "Fever 103" by Sylvia Plath, "Pig Song" by Margaret Atwood and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot. It also includes "On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia" by relative newcomer A.E. Stallings and "Sweeping the States" by Chicago native Jacob Saenz. It's peppered with quotations drawn from the magazine's comments section and its letters between poets and editors over the years. Its introduction (home to Wiman's Arctic drilling analogy) is a contemplation on poetry's past, present and future.
"We didn't want to publish Poetry magazine's greatest hits," says Share. "What we wanted was to give people a reading experience. More than something chronological or didactic, we wanted something people could read and enjoy — people who don't know anything about poetry as well as people who know a whole lot."
The process was grueling but gratifying. The two men printed every poem ever published in Poetry and organized them by author. "Someone like Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Frost had a relatively small number of poems in the magazine — maybe 10-20 pages," Wiman says. "For other poets, we'd have 200-300 pages."
They divided the poems into two stacks and got to reading — hour after hour, day after day, for several months — marking possible contenders and discussing their choices along the way.
"It was quite fascinating and sobering to see people who've been forgotten and to see how well some of the poems have held up," Wiman says. "We had about 50 that were sort of obvious that they'd go in there, and the other 50 were sort of a tussle."
A sense of serendipity permeated the entire process, overseen as it was by editors who just arrived in 2003 (Wiman) and 2007 (Share).
"We just happen to be the folks who happen to be there in the centennial year," Share says. "Our job was to carry it into the future by not resting on our laurels too much and putting in every famous poem we found."
Poetry magazine was founded by Chicago-born poet and literary critic Harriet Monroe, who was persuaded by Chicago businessman H.C. Chatfield-Taylor to find 100 people to donate $50 a year for the first five years to underwrite the magazine. Chatfield-Taylor donated the first $50. Monroe found 108 more donors. Since then, the magazine has survived many lean years and frequently teetered on the brink of extinction.
"From 1912 until the (Ruth) Lilly bequeathal, there was never a year without a crisis," Share says. "Some of them comic, some of them tragic."
Lilly, heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company fortune, donated $200 million to the magazine in 2002. The money was used to found the nonprofit Poetry Foundation, which, in addition to publishing Poetry magazine, hosts public programs and events and operates a poetry library in its River North home, opened in 2011. The magazine has a circulation of around 26,000 (more than double its pre-bequeathal readership) and won two National Magazine Awards in 2011.
The Lilly gift infused new life into an institution that, despite its struggles, has played an integral role in keeping poetry in the cultural conversation, both locally and nationally.
"Poetry magazine has been perhaps the most remarkably durable institution in modern American literature," says Reginald Gibbons, professor of English at Northwestern University and author of "Creatures of a Day," a book of poems that was a finalist for a 2008 National Book Award. "Through its many different periods under different editors, it has published an admirable variety of American poetry."
"Because it is a Chicago institution," Gibbons adds, "it has been a very important part of the city's unique contributions to American literature."
Saenz, the "Sweeping the States" author, was first published in Poetry in November 2007, shortly after he discovered the magazine while attending Columbia College. He dabbled in fiction writing and poetry as a kid growing up in Cicero, surrounded by a gang culture that simultaneously tugged at him and repelled him.
"I had a lot of friends and family members in gangs, and I knew I didn't want to be a part of it, but I had a lot of people I loved who were," he recalls. "I didn't really turn my back on it, but I held it at arm's length and sort of engaged in it that way."
Inspired to seek out the wisdom of others, he discovered Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda, known mostly for his love poems, and was energized by Neruda's political activism as much as his poetry. ("It was at that age that poetry came in search of me," Neruda wrote in "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.")
"I use poetry to make sense of the world around me," says Saenz. "I go to it to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for life and love and sorrow, but I also go to it for entertainment. I just love the language and the intricacies and the wordplay."
Which speaks to Share's hope for "Open Door" — that it holds up as a book, first and foremost, a reading experience whose very ingredients are its narrative.
"It rather amazes me to be included with poems such as 'Prufrock' or (William Meredith's) 'The Illiterate' or (Donald Justice's) 'Men at Forty' or (W.H. Auden's) 'The Shield of Achilles,'" says Alicia Stallings, who was first published in Poetry in 1995. "These poems are part of my mental and spiritual landscape."
"Poetry informs everything for me," she adds. "I am not always writing poems, but there are lines and rhythms that are part of the structure of my brain and influence how I see and hear things. A poem you have memorized is something you can carry around with you always and play through your head during difficult or joyful times."
And that's the influence — indeed, the relevance — that Wiman contemplates, even as he bristles at the very notion.
"Who knows what atomic energies are unleashed by a solitary man or woman quietly encountering some arrangement of language that gives their being — shunted aside by chores and fears and who knows what — back to them?" he writes in the book's introduction. "That is why I regret adding to the clamor over poetry's 'relevance.'
"The reaction is defensive and misguided, not because there is no hope for elevating poetry's importance, but because its power is already greater than any public attention can confer upon it."
Heidi Stevens is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.
Rich past, ambitious future
If Poetry magazine editors Don Share and Christian Wiman felt compelled to achieve a single mission with "The Open Door" anthology, Share says, it was to create a reading experience that reflects and respects the magazine's history.
"Interesting, surprising, vivid," says Share. "A collection that brings poetry alive."
Some notable firsts in the magazine's pages:
1912 Poetry magazine launches with a contribution from Ezra Pound.
1915 "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by a then-unknown T.S. Eliot appears. (Sent to Poetry founder Harriet Monroe by Ezra Pound.)
1923 Ernest Hemingway appears in Poetry for the first time.
1944 Poetry publishes Gwendolyn Brooks.
1969 Early works by Erica Jong, Robert Pinsky and Margaret Atwood are presented.
1983 Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike make first appearances.
"We already have the next year blocked out," says Wiman. "The journalist Eliza Griswold is going to Afghanistan to gather poems from women who've composed oral poems anonymously and passed them among themselves. It's a way of having a political voice without having to attribute it to anyone."
"We've got an issue devoted to photography in poetry," Wiman adds. "We've got a big feature on (abstract Expressionist) painter Joan Mitchell. We're doing some very unusual stuff in the upcoming year."
"The Open Door"
Edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman,
University of Chicago Press, 224 pages, $20Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times