One hundred years of Poetry

October 16, 2012

This month marks the 100th birthday of Poetry magazine. It was founded in Chicago by Harriet Monroe.

Monroe was born in 1860. The daughter of a prominent Chicago lawyer, she was a lonely child, and devoured the books in her father’s library. She became determined to pursue a literary career.

Her first poem was published in 1888, and over the next two decades Monroe established herself as a poet. She also served as an art and drama critic for various newspapers. Besides volumes of verse, she wrote a memoir of her late brother-in-law, architect John Wellborn Root.

Writing poetry is not a lucrative profession. A hundred years ago things were even worse. The few publications that accepted verse didn’t pay much, if they paid anything at all. And even after the work was printed, the poet was often stalled off with those immortal words, “The check is in the mail.”

Monroe’s idea was to publish a monthly magazine that would actually pay for whatever was accepted—at a fair rate, and in a timely manner. The magazine would also provide an outlet for the newer style of poetry that was starting to take shape.

In 1911 Monroe enlisted the aid of her friend Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor. Twenty years before, HCC-T had helped introduce golf to Chicago, and had wide contacts among the city’s elite. Monroe asked him to round up a hundred wealthy people who’d subscribe $50 each for a new poetry magazine to be established in Chicago.

HCC-T’s friends came through with the necessary stake. Volume 1, Number 1 of Poetry—A Magazine of Verse rolled off the press in October 1912. The 32 pages of that first issue contained works by William Vaughn Moody, Grace Hazard Conkling, Ezra Pound, and others.

Critical reception to the new magazine was mixed. Midwesterners loved it. The effete East was more condescending. One Philadelphia paper titled its review “Poetry in Porkopolis.”

Monroe carried on. Her studio was at 543 North Cass Street (Wabash Avenue). Within a few months, one writer remembered, “almost every transcontinental train disgorged a score or more of young hopefuls who walked from the station up Cass Street before breakfast to read their verses to Harriet.” If Monroe couldn’t buy all their work, she could at least give the disappointed ones a cup of hot chocolate.

But the ones that were published made the magazine a success. Monroe continued to edit Poetry until her death in Peru in 1936. At age 75, she’d been on her way to climb Macchu Picchu.

Among the poets Monroe discovered was T.S. Eliot. Perhaps he summed it up best when he wrote, “Poetry has had imitators, but has so far survived them all. It is an American institution.”