Dear Editor: a history of Poetry in letters (1912-1962)
Edited by Joseph Parisi and Steph
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the small magazine to the business of poetry. The rhyme rags provide a crucial staging post on the way to book publication: not only are they a space for new work, an arena for high-minded dispute and experiment, they also give poets a useful vanity mirror in which they can burnish their egos, as well as a forum to glad-hand their friends and pursue their vendettas.
Poetry magazine, founded by Harriet Monroe in Chicago in 1912, has been arguably the most influential of these publications. Dear Editor is a distillation from its archives of the first 50 years of correspondence between its contributors and editors. As Billy Collins, America's current poet laureate, suggests in his foreword, the letters show a kind of dysfunctional family dynamic in the relationship between editor and poet. Some of Monroe's contributors thought they could do a better job of editing the magazine than she; other letters solicit favours for friends; and there are plain, straightforward begging letters. Edna St Vincent Millay rounded off one missive with: "I am awfully broke. Would you mind paying me a lot?"
It was not Monroe's intention to champion any particular school: "The Open Door will be the policy of the magazine - may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!" she wrote. The desire was simply to publish the best new poetry, no matter where it came from, in "a public-spirited effort to gather together and enlarge the poet's public and to increase his earnings". But the early 20th century was a propitious time for the new project; it caught the first wave of what later came to be defined as modernism, thanks in large part to Ezra Pound, who grabbed the opportunity the magazine offered and refused to let go for decades.
Pound, then living in London, was published in the very first issue, and offered Monroe his services in seeking out "whatever is most dynamic in artistic thought" in Britain and France. Partly under the influence of Pound's fierce critical faculties, the magazine helped to drag poetry out of the 19th century by showcasing the new and experimental. It was the first to publish work by T S Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and HD, as well as printing early poems by Robert Frost, D H Lawrence and James Joyce.
In one of his earliest letters to Monroe, Pound is scathing about the complacency of the literary establishment: "Can't you see that until someone is honest we get nothing clear . . . I go about this London hunting for the real. I find paper after paper, person after person, mildly affirming the opinion of someone who hasn't cared enough about the art to tell what they actually believe. It's only when a few men who know get together and disagree that any sort of criticism is born . . ."
As this fascinating volume makes plain, there was disagreement aplenty. Poets can be an extraordinarily fractious and unpleasant lot: bitter, self-pitying, wheedling, nasty and vicious. They can be preening, pompous, vain; and imperturbably convinced of the rectitude of their own vision of what poetry should be. Thus a young Yvor Winters writing to Harriet Monroe in 1920 to complain about the contents of the latest issue: "I still think HD's poem an abomination. Worse than Aldington's love poems, if that is possible. Why Williams should like it is beyond me . . . The rest of the [issue] is worse. If you will pardon my frankness, I fear Poetry is sliding rather too rapidly, and will soon be, as the saying is, among the dogs." (Winters, as it happens, went on to become a breeder of prize Airedales.)
Monroe, who continued editing Poetry until 1936, when she collapsed on the approach to Machu Picchu, always managed to maintain a tone of fair-minded good humour in her dealings with even the most awkward contributors. In a subsequent letter, Winters grudgingly conceded that "I suppose a magazine justifies its existence if it prints one great poem a year - if so you continue to justify your existence and quite a bit beside."
As the roll-call of contributors shows, Poetry has done rather more than merely justify its existence over its 90-odd years, and this volume is a fitting tribute to its pre-eminent place in the life of American letters, even if it has rarely recaptured the thrill of excited innovation that Pound helped to give it in the early days. That is why it's all the more sad that the last letter printed here is from the poor, ailing, deluded Pound, writing from Italy in 1962 to accept the magazine's Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize. The once-great poet-critic signs himself "Ezra Pound, a minor satirist who at one time contributed to the general liveliness by scratching a few barnacles off the language".
Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry editor