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.
"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.