Poetry makes nothing happen.
So saidW.H. Auden.
Who never lived in Chicago.
Or knew Don Share. Share is the senior editor of Poetry magazine, the venerable Chicago-based literary institution. It turns 100 next year and has seen far more than nothing happen, particularly in the past decade. Share arrived at the magazine four years ago, hired away from Harvard University, where he was poetry editor of Harvard Review. Soon after arriving, he received what he calls a "threatening phone call."
It came from a famous novelist whose name he won't say, but the message to Share was this: You really don't want to find yourself alone in the same room with me. "He couldn't believe we rejected his poems," Share said of the man. "When you work in poetry all day, it's internal. People get shaken. I was shaken."
Poetry magazine started in Chicago in 1912, and during the ensuing century, the magazine's history and the history of American poetry often were joined at the hip. It published an unknown T.S. Eliot, gave early support to Langston Hughes, discovered Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Gwendolyn Brooks. What Poetry rarely had was a history of picking fights, rising blood pressures or heated controversies.
Until the money arrived.
In 2002, Ruth Lilly, an heir to a fortune built by Indianapolis pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, donated $200 million to Poetry magazine, which then had a modest circulation of 10,000 and annual budget of $700,000. "I was one of those people in an arts organization who thought, 'Wow,'" said Tree Swenson, executive director of the New York-based Academy of American Poets. "That's a lot of cash for one group. So out of proportion to the scale of the magazine. In one swoop, it basically made them the largest poetry organization in the country."
To administer the gift, the magazine set up the nonprofit Poetry Foundation and created a raft of initiatives to promote poetry. Today, the foundation has a budget of more than $6 million. The magazine gets $1.5 million a year, and $2.2 million goes to educational programs. Poetry's website alone receives a hefty $1.2 million, a point of contention in literary circles. Then there's $1.3 million for administrative costs, including salaries for the 20-person staff. "We have a guideline that forces us to never spend more than 5 percent (annually) of the total market value of the endowment," said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation.
"But poetry is not a moneymaker," he added. "And so the grand experiment here was to throw money into this art form that had no history of making money and see if poetry would be OK at the end of the day."
The answer is complicated.
Right now, Poetry magazine is having a moment. A decade after the gift was announced, circulation is up, to 26,000. Under Editor-in-Chief Christian Wiman, Poetry is arguably smarter than it has been in years: "I read it immediately when I get it," said Alice Quinn, who runs the Poetry Society of America and was poetry editor at the New Yorker. "That's a sign of vitality." The National Magazine Award judges agreed: Last spring Poetry won best literary magazine — beating the Paris Review — and an award for best podcast.
And this weekend, after seven years of planning, the Poetry Foundation opens its $21.5 million River North home at the corner of Dearborn and Superior streets with a celebration that is drawing a who's who of American poetry.
Nevertheless, a decade after the donation was announced, the magazine and foundation, which many in the poetry community find impossible to separate, are often regarded as a distant, powerful monolith. A number of people contacted for this story would only talk off the record — the foundation has become so entwined in the poetry world, few would risk offending its players. Michael Hanson, co-editor of the Chicago Review, itself founded 75 years ago, sees the foundation as "extremely well-funded and underproducing," so large that it has inadvertently divided the poetry world into a "foundation-approved community" and everyone else. "In Chicago? They seem disconnected, almost a commercial enterprise, walled off from the scene."
For years, what had been playing out at the foundation and magazine sounded like a multi-act play about the consequences of winning the lottery. Barr, a former Wall Street investment banker with several books of poetry to his name, was at the center, hired in 2004 to guide the foundation. He immediately rubbed much of the poetry community the wrong way: He announced plans for a building (which some foundation trustees considered wasteful and unnecessary), briefly put his wife on the payroll (drawing cries of nepotism) and was accused of an anti-education approach to outreach. The more benign critics wondered if poetry's stature could be raised by marketing campaigns; the more damning — including more than half of the dozen trustees who resigned or said they were forced out by Barr — cried allegations of mismanagement.
This led to an investigation by the Illinois attorney general's office, which handles the oversight of nonprofits. The investigation is ongoing, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said, and has the full cooperation of the foundation.
On top of this, in 2007, Wiman published an essay in American Scholar revealing he had been diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood cancer; he declined to discuss the details but said he seems fine.
His announcement came as the magazine had begun to establish itself in the literary community as an unlikely provocateur, shaking up poetry circles, fielding outraged calls from famous writers. The magazine had run harsh criticism of Garrison Keillor (despite funding Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" on National Public Radio), tore into acclaimed, normally untouchable Pulitzer Prize-winning poets such as Robert Hass, and simply wouldn't publish the submissions of others, including Pulitzer winner Franz Wright, who wrote angry letters to Wiman — which Wiman published. "It was clear the magazine was trying to wake people up," Share said. "That isn't always appreciated. It's often easier to stay asleep."
"The old argument was that the magazine was too safe, too tweedy," said Kevin Stein, Illinois' poet laureate. "But that's certainly not the argument anymore. It's generated real electricity, and shown a willingness to fail." Even Peter Minarik, one of the trustees who quit (and, like many of the others, stands by his criticisms), said "the building may be a monument to John Barr, but Poetry is a fabulous magazine again."
"I didn't agree with their takedown of Garrison Keillor," said Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review. "But I'm glad it was in there. I mean, that much money is a curse, in a way. How do you not change your direction?"
Wiman, 44, is a striking figure, serious and soft-spoken without seeming intense, an acclaimed poet (Slate recently compared him with Robert Frost) and former Northwestern University teacher. He grew up in west Texas, and has the sharp, sad blue eyes and casually handsome stature of a Banana Republic model. In the magazine, and as a poet, he is hard to predict. Poetry was founded by Chicagoan Harriet Monroe, and though the magazine was created to bring great poetry to a large audience, Monroe was a proponent of intellectualism and modernism; Barr, on the other hand, favors a more mainstream tone.
Wiman falls in the middle.
He started in 2003 and quickly became a polarizing figure in poetry circles, not catering to any ideology. He preferred formal poetry to the free verse published under the previous editor, Joseph Parisi. He made no bones about wanting poems that rhymed, told stories, spoke in plain English. "Poetry (magazine) wasn't the center of the literary conversation anymore," Wiman said. "I wanted to make an attempt to make it the center, to give you that sense that if you missed an issue then you were missing out on the conversation itself." He was accused of running hatchet-job reviews; he was also praised for taking chances, redesigning the magazine and turning the cover into a showcase for clever artists like Gary Baseman and Peter De Seve.
One of the most popular features that Wiman introduced to the magazine was a prose column, "A View From Here," which asks writers outside poetry to consider poetry; one upcoming "View," for example, is penned by the chief legal counsel for Exxon Mobil, who Wiman says has been a longtime Poetry subscriber.
To some degree, clarifying poetry has been a goal of the foundation, to make it less opaque to people who wouldn't normally gravitate to poetry, to separate the art form itself from what Barr has said is a traditionally insulated and academic community. That sounds more benign than it was taken by many in the poetry community, where, to an extent, mystery is a virtue. Said poet and critic James Longenbach in an email, offering a bit of both sides: "Poetry exists to make language strange to us, as, say, the newspaper does not. You like to read poems if you like to read very slowly, savoring the language. That said, any effort to make that strangeness available to people is, whether it succeeds or fails in the short run, a good effort."
Wiman's editorial choices — coupled with Barr's decisions — led to ongoing arguments in the poetry community about populism versus elitism, difficult poems versus accessible. The foundation exerts no pressure on the magazine, Wiman said. "Their goal is to make poetry as broadly accessible as possible. That is not often a goal of (Poetry). We publish poems that I know people will find tremendously difficult or even dislike, but we publish them because they have merit and maybe people will like these works in time."
To some, that strain is evident. "I have the impression that it's working very hard to be relevant," poet Hass said.
To others, as poetry critic David Orr puts it, "questions of accessibility in poetry get shrill fast, good points get lost. Besides, any group in poetry with that much money would get blowback. We're a dramatic bunch."
On a recent spring day, Wiman and Share were recording Poetry's monthly podcast. They sat in a small office in the foundation's spacious Michigan Avenue home, an envious spot with panoramic windows wrapping around a tidy cubicle farm, the kind of offices that a $200 million endowment can buy. Wiman held the May issue of Poetry out in front of him with one hand and read James Arthur's "The Land of Nod."
Outside on Michigan, a siren came and went and Wiman paused, waited, smiled tightly, then continued.
"Dammit," he said.
Moving on, he and Share began discussing a different poem. Until a horn honked. "Do we need to say anything else?" Wiman asked, frustrated. "I don't think we clarified this one." No, an engineer said, you did.
Late last week Poetry magazine was preparing to leave for its new home, which will have 22,000 square feet, a 125-seat theater, a library for its 35,000 books of poetry — and a soundproof booth for recording podcasts. Aside from putting together summer issues, Wiman has a book due to his publisher. Then there's the 100-poem anthology that he and Share are working on to celebrate the magazine's 100th anniversary. It's due in a few weeks. It's a sensitive issue — they're picking 100 poems, no more than one per poet, and only work seen in Poetry. Share said some of their choices will upset. But they're kind of getting used to that.
Meanwhile, the magazine itself trudges on, physically the same as always — a modest, 9-inch-by-5-inch book, albeit one that receives 100,000 poetry submissions a year now, and only has enough room for about 300.
"It's an impossible position in so many ways," said poet Robert Archambeau, who teaches at Lake Forest College (and writes for Poetry). "The magazine is read now by people who aren't poets, read by poets. They have to tread between populist and sophisticated. They're navigating as well as anyone. They're always going to be a target. (Other poets and arts groups) probably wish Ruth Lilly had given them that money. You wonder now if they do."
The Poetry Foundation's new headquarters open Saturday with a weekend-long celebration featuring readings, panel discussions and tours. All events are free; doors open at 8 a.m. Among the poets and writers scheduled to appear: Billy Collins, Sandra Cisneros, Kay Ryan, Robert Hass and Edward Hirsch. Neko Case performs Saturday at 9 p.m. Many events are at capacity, but wait lists are available; Neko Case tickets limited to 180. See poetryfoundation.org for more information.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times