Michael Lewis, a journalist and the author of “Liar’s Poker” and “Moneyball,” appeared in the magazine Poetry for the first time in the summer of 2005, with a satirical piece called “How to Make a Killing from Poetry: A Six Point Plan of Attack.” It offered its advice in bullet-point businessese: “1) Think Positive. Nobody likes a whiner. And poets always seem to be harping on the negative… . 2) Take Your New Positive Attitude and Direct It Towards the Paying Customer. The customer is your friend. Your typical poem really doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the living retail customer… . 3) Think About Your Core Message. Your average reader might like a bit of fancy writing, but at the end of the day he will always ask himself: what’s my takeaway?” So it was slightly odd, and unintentionally comical, when, last September, Poetry published a manifesto, “American Poetry in the New Century,” recapitulating Lewis’s lampoon as a serious position. The author was John Barr, a former Wall Street executive and the president of the Poetry Foundation, an entity created after the Indianapolis heiress Ruth Lilly gave some two hundred million dollars to Poetry, in 2002. The foundation, which “exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience,” also publishes the magazine.
In the essay, Barr declared, “American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today.” Poetry, largely absent from public lifefrom classrooms, bookstores, newspapers, mainstream media”has a morale problem,” he said; it is in “a bad mood.” Poems are written only with other poets in mind, and therefore do not sell. (Two thousand copies is the industry standard.) He argued that the effect of M.F.A. programs, increasingly prevalent since the nineteen-seventies, has been “to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, norand I stress this qualityentertaining.” In a section titled “Live Broadly, Write Boldly,” he urged poets to do as Hemingway did, and seek experience outside the academytake a safari, go marlin fishing, run with the bulls. “The human mind is a marketplace, especially when it comes to selecting one’s entertainment,” he wrote. “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.”
Barr grew up outside Chicago and says that, as an outgoing Midwesterner, he “survived” Harvard, which he attended on a Navy scholarship. He is sixty-four, small and bluff, with a warm, chuckling affect. In 1985, he started an energy-marketing company now called Dynegy, and, after retiring from a managing directorship at Morgan Stanley, co-founded an investment-banking boutique, Barr Devlin; he is also the author of six books of poems, several of them published in limited editions by a letterpress printer. He commutes between Chicago, where he and his wife, Penny, live in a hotel condominium on Michigan Avenue with a Shih Tzu and a miniature Yorkie, and three other homes, including a twenty-five-acre estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, which serves as a weekend place. (The Barrs have three grown children.) He is a big-game hunterslightly deaf in his right earand a sailor, with a tan in all seasons. For years, he avoided talking about his poetry with business colleagues. “I was afraid that they thought of poets as hippies, and might have viewed it slightly askance,” he says. Barr’s latest book, “Grace: An Epic Poem,” is told in an invented Caribbean dialect inspired by family sailing trips around the Windwards and the British Virgin Islands. It is anything but shy. (The narrator, a gardener, describes seeing the mistress of the house caught by her husband in flagrante delicto”De gentleman, he produce his prduce / like a corporate salami, and she hers, / like a surgery scar still angry red wid healing. / Den he settle his equipment in de lady’s outback / an’ he spud de well”a predicament that leads to murder and nearly a hundred and fifty pages of poem.)
Barr’s call for something new was, in a narrow sense, consistent with the magazine’s radical origins. Harriet Monroe, who founded Poetry in Chicago in 1912, reflected in a memoir that at the turn of the century “the well of American poetry seemed to be thinning out and drying up, and the worst of it was that nobody seemed to care. It was this indifference that I started out to combat, this dry conservatism that I wished to refresh with living waters from a new spring.” But, whereas Barr aspires to reunite poetry with the current of popular entertainment, Monroe, herself a frustrated poet, was motivated by distaste for the mainstream. The circular she sent to poets offered “First, a chance to be heard in their own place, without the limitations imposed by the popular magazine. In other words, while the ordinary magazines must minister to a large public little interested in poetry, this magazine will appeal to, and it may be hoped, will develop, a public primarily interested in poetry as an art, as the highest, most complete expression of truth and beauty.” The earliest issues contained poems by Ezra Pound (living in London and from the start the magazine’s foreign correspondent), as well as H. D. and Wallace Stevens, both unknowns. In 1915, Monroe published a poem by T. S. Eliot, then in his mid-twenties: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” These poets, she wrote, “swept away Victorian excesses and weaknessesall the overemphasis on trite sentiment with its repetitions and clichs, and on archaic formalities of diction and technique.” East Coast newspapers made fun of the idea of “Poetry in Porkopolis,” but nevertheless Poetry became an emblem of high modernism, and Monroe its chief propagandist.
"The histories of modern poetry in America and of Poetry in America are almost interchangeable, certainly inseparable," the poet A. R. Ammons once said. (Among the magazine’s discoveries were Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.) Barr understandably relishes this glamorous past, but he is openly hostile to its legacy in poetry today. "For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism," he wrote. "It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine." Barr envisions a poetry more engaged, public-minded, and audience-beloved than modernismintellectual, personal, and sometimes even willfully obscurecould ever be. "American poetry has yet to produce its Mark Twain," he wrote. As an incentive, he has established a new foundation prize, with a twenty-five-thousand-dollar purse: the Mark Twain Award for humor. The inaugural winner was Billy Collins, an affable, self-deprecating former Poet Laureate who has demonstrated a remarkable ability to connect with an audience (according to his publisher, he has sold more than five hundred thousand books), and who in many ways embodies Barr’s ideal.
The most recent photograph I have seen of Ruth Lilly shows an elderly woman with pretty, heavy-lidded blue eyes, a blond bouffant, and red lipstick, wearing big pearl earrings and a pink suit with zebra trim, and sitting before a red poinsettia. The picture is reproduced in “A Little Book: The Poems and Selected Writings of Ruth Lilly,” a gray cloth hardcover with gold embossed lettering, edited by Penny Barr and privately printed by the Poetry Foundation. It was presented to Mrs. Lilly in August, 2005, on her ninetieth birthday. The poems are formal, sighing, adorned with exclamation points, and often poignant in their wish for simple things (a little cottage, an erstwhile companion). Some appear under the pseudonym Joan March; others, including one published in the Times in the late nineteen-thirties, are signed “R. Lyly.”
Ruth, the last surviving great-grandchild of Colonel Eli Lilly, who started the pharmaceutical company, and one of the two children of J. K. Lilly, Jr., and Ruth Brinkmeyer Lilly, was a delicate girl born into a famous family in a small town. According to the Indianapolis Star, depression, which ran in the family, caused her to miss part of high school. Already shelteredshe was driven around by armed Pinkerton guards, who changed their routes from day to dayshe receded further after the Lindbergh kidnapping and a threat against her cousin. When Ruth was seventeen, the family moved into Oldfields, a twenty-two-room French-chteau-style mansion, where the meals were nonetheless, in the words of one visitor, “Hoosier homebody”: French onion soup, lamb chops, strawberries and cream. Her bedroom overlooked a ravine designed by the Olmsted brothers’s firm. Ruth’s father, a major collector of rare books, added a library, and in 1954 founded the Lilly Library, at Indiana University, when he donated his twenty thousand volumes and seventeen thousand manuscripts. (He also collected toy soldiers, wooden ships, and stamps, and had a six-thousand-piece gold-coin collection, which now belongs to the Smithsonian.) According to the audio tour at Oldfields, which Ruth and her brother, Joe, gave to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the thick curtains in the loggia were often drawn, for privacy.
At twenty-five, Ruth married Guernsey van Riper, Jr., who became an editor at Bobbs-Merrill, the publishing house, and the author of several biographies for children (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne), though they had none. Ruth spent the forty years they were together in and out of hospitals, undergoing psychiatric treatment. She is so reclusive that sightings have occasioned newspaper stories. One tale, possibly apocryphal, holds that department-store owners in Indianapolis dressed the mannequins in outfits they thought she would like, and left the display lights on, so that Ruth, driven past the windows by her chauffeur late at night, could pick out new clothes. For many years, she was afraid to fly, and didn’t leave the country until after she was eighty. An article in the Star credits Prozac, a Lilly drug, with improving her condition. She now travels once or twice a year, with an entourage of several dozen doctors, nurses, relatives, attendants, and, sometimes, a chef. Her house, Twin Oaks, which belonged to her father, is in a prosperous neighborhood, a few miles from Oldfields. It is protected by a screen of tall pine trees and a thread of wire fence. Through the bare woods, you can glimpse a whitewashed brick house with blue shutters, and an attending squad car.
In the absence of real information about Lilly’s motivation for giving such a fortune to Poetry, a myth took hold. When it came out that Lilly, as Mrs. Guernsey van Riper, Jr., had submitted poems to Poetry in the seventies and that the poems had been turned down with a personal note, that colorful detail became a substitute for narrative logic. In the exuberant newspaper stories at the time, Lilly emerged as an almost fantastical benefactora Greek deity, disguised as a common traveller, who rewards kindness with riches and immortality. What did not emerge was that Lilly may not have intended to be so generous.
In 1981, Ruth and Guernsey were divorced and her brother, Joe, placed her under the supervision of the court, which named Merchants National Bank, later acquired by National City, as the conservator of her estate. At that point, the estate was worth about fifty million dollarsalmost entirely in the form of Lilly stockand her will stipulated that, after providing for her six nieces and nephews, the money would be divided among Poetry, a Washington-based arts-education and lobbying group that is now called Americans for the Arts, and the Lilly Endowment, a foundation whose resources are mostly directed toward Indianapolis. In the next twenty years, Lilly stock did well, and Mrs. Lilly’s estate grew to be worth roughly a billion dollars. In the late nineties, her lawyer drafted a series of wills, codicils, and testamentary documents that shifted the bulk of the estate to a new entity, over which the lawyer, along with Lilly’s nieces and nephews, would preside, to benefit Indianapolis in her name. Lilly’s health was precarious, and the bank, when it learned of the alterations, worried that if she died the “old charities,” as they came to be called, might sue.
The bank, with permission from the court, drew up a plan restoring the money to the old charities, only now the pot was much richer. Poetry learned of its stake in the fall of 2001, but waited a year before announcing the gift. In the meantime, the old board of PoetryChicago arts patrons, mostly, whose role was fund-raisingbegan to be reconfigured into the Poetry Foundation. During that year, Lilly stock dropped from around seventy-five dollars a share to as low as forty-eightsignificantly reducing the value of the Poetry Foundation’s portionand the foundation, along with Americans for the Arts, sued the bank for failing to diversify the holdings in spite of what it says was an obligation to do so. In a summary judgment, the court ruled against the foundation; this past October, an appeals court, after warning the charities, “If you have a gift horse, keep your mouth shut,” upheld that judgment; and in December the foundation requested an appeal with the Indiana Supreme Court.
Joseph Parisi, who had been the magazine’s editor for twenty years at the time of the gift, volunteered to take charge of the foundation and named Christian Wiman, a young poet and critic, as his successor. (Parisi quit the foundation after only a few months.) The board used a headhunter to find John Barr, who was working for Socit Gnrale, to whom he had sold Barr Devlin, as the head of its global power-utility business. Barr had been on the boards of the Poetry Society of America, Bennington College, and Yaddo, and had taught for three terms in the M.F.A. program at Sarah Lawrence. When he met with the board, he told them, quoting a Richard Wilbur poem, “If what you want is a ‘good, gray guardian of art,’ you’ve got the wrong person.” The job, he says, is the bully pulpit he’s been waiting for these many years.
One morning in mid-November, in Chicago, Barr, wearing a windbreaker and loafers, stood on the pavement across the street from two small office buildings, just a few blocks from the Newberry Library, which, before the Lilly gift, gave Poetry an eight-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot space in its stacks building to use as an office. (For the time being, the magazine and the foundation share a large suite in a tower across from the Tribune.) The foundation is negotiating to buy the double lot, which is on the market for seven million dollars, and, if the deal goes through, will house a twenty-five-thousand-square-foot building that should be ready in several years. There will be room for a library, offices for the magazine and the foundation, and a lecture hall. (The foundation already has an excellent series; this fall, there were readings by Mark Strand, Robert Hass, and Gary Snyder, as well as a staged reading of Richard Wilbur’s verse translation of “Tartuffe.”) “The building won’t be palatial, but it will have an identity as a national home for poetry,” Barr said. It will also have space for the foundation’s new project: the Poetry Institute, a think tank modelled on the Aspen Institute, for researching issues in contemporary poetry and organizing symposia to disseminate the findings. Its first effort was a survey completed last spring by the National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago, which cost seven hundred thousand dollars, and revealed, along with a great deal of other data, that ninety per cent of American readers value poetry.
The Poetry Foundation functions as an operating foundation, spending most of its money on its own activities rather than on grants. As Ethel Kaplan, a lawyer at a wealth-management firm and the chair of the board, put it, “Nobody wanted to sit back and read grant proposalsespecially from poets.” By January, the foundation had received eighty-eight million dollars. After all the money has been distributed, the foundation’s budget will be about ten million dollars a year.
In an editorial in Poetry in 1922, Monroe bemoaned the quality of newspaper verse: “These syndicated rhymers, like the movie-producers, are learning that ‘it pays to be good,’ that one ‘gets by by giving the people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness, with this program paying at the box-office.’ ” She wanted to create a place apart for poetry; the foundation wants to take the genre bigright back into the magazines and newspapers that, a century ago, rejected all but the softest pap. To this end, the foundation is offering its services as an external poetry editor. Over the past year, it has sent a dozen magazine editors mockups with poems superimposed on actual layouts from those magazines (a Basho haiku in a Good Housekeeping spread showing how to “pair old china with fresh blooms”; Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips” on a fitness page called “Love Your Curves”). To Details, the foundation suggested an essay by Jim Harrison: “If Jim Harrison, poet, novelist (Legends of the Fall) and walking vat of testosterone, needs a daily shot of poetry, it must not be for sissies… . A good hed for the piece might be ‘Don’t Be Afraid of Poetry.’ A better one might be ‘Read Poetry. Get Laid.’ ” Some poets work better for this purpose than others. “It’s just common sense that we would not take language poetry and put it in a mockup magazine for Better Homes & Gardens,” Barr said. “They’d say, ‘What the hell is this? My readers would never understand it.’ ” The foundation also pays for a syndicated newspaper column by Ted Kooser, the former Nebraska life-insurance executive who was Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. The column, which features poems on comforting American themes (neighbors, chores, raking), runs mostly in regional papers in the Midwest and the South.
The annual budget for the foundation’s Web site, which dbuted a year ago, is more than a million dollars. The site has newsy items, blogs, a poetry best-seller list, and an archive of poems from a wide range of poets, helpfully indexed by subject matter. It is a boon to poetswhose publishers get paid for the use of the workand to best men. Emily Warn, the editor of the site, has published two collections of poems with Copper Canyon Press (a third is forthcoming) and used to work at Microsoft, where she helped launch early versions of Internet Explorer. “We exist at the intersection of the great poems in our archive and this very broad public,” she said. She would like the site to become the Billboard or the Entertainment Weekly of the poetry world, reflecting everything that’s happening without a dogmatic point of view. She consults both with academics (what are the best and most representative poems of Czeslaw Milosz?) and with those whose sensibilities are a bit more pop. The site’s associate editor, Emily White, lives in Seattle and for five years edited the alternative paper The Stranger. (Warn says that she never would have come up with the headline “Herbert Sucks. Donne Is a Pimp” if not for the influence of White.) Jeff Gordinier, an editor-at-large at Details who writes a column called “The Philistine” for the site, told me that he has suggested introducing more humor and irreverence”charts and quizzes and time lines and very attitudinal columns and reaching out for a dash more celebrity presence.”
In September, the foundation announced the latest of a group of prizes intended, Barr says, “to throw a spotlight of recognition on underilluminated corners of the poetry world,” and named Jack Prelutsky America’s first Children’s Poet Laureate. Prelutsky, who has published more than forty books of children’s poems, is, you might say, the ultimate example of a poet who keeps his audience in mind. “I Have a Pet Tomato,” from “It’s Raining Pigs and Noodles,” reads:
I have a pet tomato,
it doesn’t have a stem.
My friends have pet asparagus—
why can’t I be like them?
The Children’s Laureate was Penny Barr’s idea. “I’m not a poet,” she told me. “I’m not versed in poetry, but I am versed in bringing up children. It’s a natural for me. The adult poets have never heard of Jack Prelutsky. The big secret is that these people are making a lot of money!” Prelutsky has donated to the foundation a collection of five thousand children’s books, which will be stored in the building.
The cumulative effect, John Barr hopes, will be conspicuous.”You probably haven’t heard much humility out of me,” he said. “But many years from now, when people are looking back, my first hope would be that the course of the river of American poetry would have been altered by a few degrees—or maybe more—by the Poetry Foundation. If less than that happens, but there’s something discernible enough to be called the Chicago Movement, that wouldn’t disappoint me, either. I don’t know what the Chicago Movement is. I have no idea. It’s not poets or a kind of poetry. But it implies a departure from the status quo today. If there’s an effect on the art form, I hope it would be a bigger audience and a poetry that is deriving energy from a general audience. You know that line of Ezra Pound’s about Walt Whitman, ‘Let there be commerce between us’? I hope there’s more commerce, in that sense, the poetic sense, between the mainstream general readers and contemporary poets.”
Money is a shocking thing in poetry, and Ruth Lilly’s gift was greeted with a measure of ambivalence. Howard Junker, the editor of the San Francisco journal Zyzzyva, wrote a letter to the Times—after it ran a piece about poetry’s bright days ahead—admitting that “Ruth Lilly’s generosity makes me green with envy.” But, he went on, “A gift this size to such a small organization is bad philanthropy… . The struggle for the staff and the board will now be how to spend the money. Sustaining the vision of a venerable little magazine will become an afterthought. Drowning in cash might seem a dream come true; more likely it will turn out to be a nightmare.” Billy Collins, speaking for the unperturbed, offered a method for coping with the deluge. “I suggested that the Poetry Foundation buy a ship, an Aristotle Onassis-type, hundred-and-ninety-foot luxury cruiser,” he told me. “You’d call it the Poetry Boat, and take it around the coast of the world, then back it into the harbor in Saint-Tropez and I could give a reading on the stern.” Poetry organizations were hopeful that there would be a chance to collaborate and advance work already under way; the foundation, although it has made a number of small contributions to others in the field—five thousand dollars to the Academy of American Poets in support of National Poetry Month, for example—is, for the most part, going it alone. One poet I spoke with described the foundation as “the Dixie Special, coming down the tracks.” The director of a nonprofit literary group said, “The tone is, We are going to make a presence for poetry in the culture. It’s as if they’re jumping on a wave mid-course and trying to claim they’re the moon that brought the tide that made the wave. It’s the effort to take credit for things that are already going on that is distasteful.”
Barr’s essay loosed a cascade of criticism from poets and teachers already wary of the foundation’s agenda: “horrifying,” “anti-intellectual,” “anti-education” were some of the responses I heard. Carol Muske-Dukes, a poet and a professor at University of Southern California, said, “This is the consumerization of poetry. It’s being co-opted. The foundation is talking about trying to reach as many people as possible without really changing their consciousness. It just wants them to buy.” In an obvious if indirect reference to the foundation’s activities, Joel Brouwer, a poet reviewing a collection in the Times Book Review in December, wrote, “Contemporary poetry’s great good fortune (despite contrary claims from certain hand-wringers mad to see poems affixed to every slot-machine, taxi stand and flowerpot in the land) is that it has no mass market, and so no call to pander.” Others simply think that the efforts at popularization will be futile. The poet and translator Richard Howard, who teaches at Columbia, said, “They want to change poetry—poetry changes itself. You can’t make poetry itself do something.”
The letters pages of Poetry were full of rebuke, along with a couple of gestures of support. The poet Robert Wrigley, who directs the M.F.A. program at the University of Idaho, wrote a letter, which, in twenty rhetorical questions (“Finally, hello?”), performed back flips of outrage and stuck a landing on the single-word sentence “Bullshit.” In December, Stephen Yenser, a poet and a professor of English at U.C.L.A., who also wrote an uncomplimentary letter to Poetry, addressed the controversy while introducing a young poet before a reading at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles. “Perhaps you’ve been following the little dustup in the pages of the recrudescent Poetry magazine,” he said. “They’re funded by drug money—literally—Lilly pharmaceutical!” The audience, mostly poets and poetry professors and their students, laughed knowingly, and he went on to conclude, “Contra Mr. Barr, there are many quite different poetries thriving in the United States today.”
To Barr’s critics, his ideology represents the encroachment of cultural conservatism, money, and vulgar money people on a precinct considered sacred, and safely forgotten. “Subjecting poetry to economic laws and new marketing campaigns seems like a crass intrusion into the valleys of its saying where executives should never want to tamper,” D. W. Fenza, the executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, wrote in the association’s December newsletter. Barr is what people these days call a “businessman-poet,” and in this he is like Dana Gioia, a former executive at General Foods (his team invented Jell-O Jigglers), who is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and, as such, one of the country’s most visible spokesmen for poetry. In 1991, Gioia published a controversial essay, “Can Poetry Matter?,” which prefigured Barr’s assessment of the state of the art. He, too, would like to see the return of the nineteenth-century poet-orator, and points out that in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lifetime his birthday was treated like a national holiday. Some of Gioia’s most visible initiatives at the N.E.A. have involved arranging for Shakespeare and opera to be performed on military bases; Operation Homecoming, which received funding from Boeing, established writers’ workshops for soldiers who have fought in Iraq and in Afghanistan. A recent article in Business Week cited the endowment’s “focus on programs with patriotic themes” as one reason that its budget has increased seven and a half per cent under Gioia. Barr says that he and Gioia are kindred spirits—the sort of disclosure that confirms everything the opposition fears. (Barr’s and Gioia’s organizations have collaborated on a program called Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry bee in which high-school students memorize and recite poems.) A forthcoming piece, by Steve Evans, in The Baffler, a leftist Chicago magazine, asserts, “Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser, Karl Rove’s battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world.” In a footnote, Evans identifies Barr as a Republican Party contributor, an assertion that Barr, who sees his job at the foundation as having nothing to do with politics, told me he would rather not discuss.
Even in the most considered reactions, it is possible to detect an undertow of anguish: it is infuriating to ponder the truth in Barr’s claim that the public no longer values poetry, and to contemplate some of the choices the foundation has made, especially as the traditional patrons of poetry—schools, independent publishers, little magazines—struggle to keep their programs alive. “Money doesn’t solve problems, it rearranges problems, and a lot of money creates a kaleidoscope of possibilities,” J. D. McClatchy, a poet and the editor of The Yale Review, said. “The aura of mediocrity has settled like a fog over the business of the foundation. The new awards, for example. It’s not the winners who trouble me, it’s the categories. Children’s poetry? Funny poetry? If those are a way for the foundation to carve a niche for itself, it’s a shallow one and too low down on the wall. It signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal. Ironically, they risk marginalizing themselves by appealing to people who think of the ‘Prairie Home Companion’ as high art. It’s the culture of sidebars, poems suitable for the fronts of tote bags. The foundation seems to want to promote poetry, the way you’d promote cereal or a sitcom.”
Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry since 2003, has often expressed in print a stern preference for formal poems and a disdain for what he calls “broken-prose confessionalism” and “the generic, self-obsessed free-verse poetry of the seventies and eighties.” His judgments can have a dismal cast: in a sidebar about influential poets in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote of Wallace Stevens that “his work has a hothouse, overintellectualized quality, which has endeared it to the academy and which contemporary poets would do well to purge.” Of Sylvia Plath he said, “Her overall influence has been terrible, promoting a kind of narcissistic despair that persists in many poems, novels, and movies today.”
Wiman, who is forty, grew up in West Texas and has solemn blue eyes and a pleasant, mellow disposition. In the apartment that he shares with Danielle Chapman, his wife and a consulting editor to the magazine, there is a black-and-white photograph of his grandmother as an adolescent, being baptized in a Texas river. He told me that he wanted the poems in his first book, often rhymed and metered, to be accessible to his family. “I have a very particular aesthetic, and the magazine is definitely influenced by that, but I don’t see my role as imposing that aesthetic on the magazine,” he said. He has published a range of poets, and speaks proudly of the experimental ones.
Wiman felt that the magazine he inherited needed rejuvenating. “Not enough people were talking about it,” he said. “Not enough young poets were sending their work here. It was just sleepy. I tried to put something in every issue that would be provocative in some way.” A piece that he commissioned from the poet and memoirist Mary Karr began, “To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry—a journal founded in part on and for the godless, twentieth-century disillusionaries of J. Alfred Prufrock and his pals—feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO’s ‘Real Sex Extra.’ ” The same impulse to surprise, he says, led him to ask Barr if he could publish Barr’s essay, which he had heard him deliver as a talk at the University of Chicago the year before.
Wiman agrees with much of what Barr has to say about contemporary poetry and its place in the culture. His purview, however, is mostly limited to the magazine. He has hired a group of outspoken young critics and given them the freedom to say what they really think. In an editorial in 2005, he explained, “Not only was there a great deal of obvious logrolling going on (friends reviewing friends, teachers promoting students, young poets writing strategic reviews of older poets in power), but the writing was just so polite, professional, and dull… . We wanted writers who wrote as if there were an audience of general readers out there who might be interested in contemporary poetry. That meant hiring critics with sharp opinions, broad knowledge of fields other than poetry, and some flair.” The new pugnacity is not always appreciated. One letter to the editor said of the reviews, “In their own spirit, I need to say that they seem like the work of cheeky young narcissists who elect negativity at the expense of informed analysis, substituting shallowness for depth, attitude for understanding.” Under Wiman, the circulation has grown from eleven thousand to nearly thirty (partly thanks to direct-mail campaigns). Two years ago, the magazine was redesigned, and, though it is still a slim nine-by-five-inch book, with tasteful poetry-related advertisements and prize announcements in the back, the covers now display vivid color illustrations. The poets, who used to be paid two dollars a line, get ten.
At last count, several years ago, Poetry, which prints some three hundred poems a year, had to choose from among ninety thousand submissions. (I submitted poems in 1998, just before graduating from college; the editor at the time, Parisi, had the good judgment not to publish them.) The editorial staff—Wiman, Chapman, an assistant editor, and an intern—meets on Wednesdays to talk about manuscripts. Several weeks ago, they assembled around a large oval table in a conference room with a view of the lake, and took turns advocating for their favorites in the batch. The conversation, which lasted a couple of hours, was sober, respectful, tolerant of ambiguities, and open to certain extra-literary considerations. After the work of several well-known poets was discussed, Wiman presented a young poet. “These poems are different,” he said. “What I like is that she has a fantastic ear. I find them irritating, too. The lacunae suggest a complacency. There are some beautiful lines. I put it to you guys: Is it too impenetrable? Did you respond to them? Do they work, or are they full of contemporary tics?
"It looks actually like she has very few publications," he continued. "That’s good." He said that he was going to take the poems, and the staff, duly persuaded, agreed.
There was a long discussion about the poems of an M.F.A. student whose manuscript had been submitted anonymously by his professor, and another about the work of someone who presented himself as a high-school student. “If it’s true, that’s reason enough to publish him,” Chapman said. “It’s a tradition of Poetry magazine and it’s something that we’ve never done.” In the last minutes of the meeting, the staff decided on some poems by two longtime contributors—they were perfect for the summer issue, the theme of which Chapman described as “beach reading for serious readers.”
The Wayfarers’ Club, a century-old organization that John Barr joined when he moved to Chicago, meets in a formidable stone building with a large awning across from the Art Institute. The Wayfarers’ membership typically includes the presidents of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern, the director of the Art Institute, business leaders, and, in the past, according to David Hilliard, the club’s secretary and treasurer, “real moguls.” The smell of cigar smoke lingers in the halls. On a foggy, chilly night late last year, Barr was scheduled to make a twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation about the foundation and the Lilly gift. Hilliard’s wife, Celia, a Chicago historian, has been on the board of Poetry for nearly thirty years and is on the committee to select an architect for the new building. “The magazine was always a very important anchor for poetry in Chicago—with Carl Sandburg and the hog butchers and all that, and Gwendolyn Brooks and Bronzeville,” she said. “It was a headquarters for poets, even if they didn’t come from Chicago. There used to be a little restaurant called Le Petit Gourmet, on Michigan Avenue. Harriet Monroe would have readings, with Sandburg playing his guitar.”
A server hit a glockenspiel to signal that dinner was prepared, and the Wayfarers and their guests adjourned to a panelled room with casement windows and heavy upholstered valances. Barr arrived in a crisp white shirt, navy blazer, and striped tie, and sat at a table with Penny—petite, blond, coral lipstick, gold watch—the Hilliards, and a couple of other board members and foundation employees. Conversation turned to the controversy over Barr’s essay. Celia politely said that she still hadn’t read the latest letters to the editor. “Make sure you’re sitting down,” John said. “We got a lot of mail—it was one of the higher mail-drawers yet.”
Ethel Kaplan, the chair of the board, said, “It’s exciting to me that people are excited about it. Whether they’re for us or against us. They feel passionate about it and are talking passionately about it. I’ve been on the board for thirty years. For so many of those years, Poetry was a quaint little oddity. If we’ve been part of stimulating this debate and starting the conversation, that’s wonderful.”
As dinner was served, David Hilliard went up to a podium and began an introduction. He joked that the foundation, seeing as it was so flush, might dedicate a new award to “Pure Poets”—those who think poetic thoughts but never write them down. “Nothing lavish—say, fifty thousand dollars to the Pure Poet of the year.” Then he asked for some investment tips, perhaps something in natural gas. Barr rose and stood before the room. “Thank you for a unique introduction,” he said. “I have been called the world’s largest supply of natural gas in the past.” Chuckle.
Barr showed slides of Harriet Monroe, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore (“She has that wonderful short poem, ‘Poetry,’ ‘I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle’ “), William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound (“How’d you like to have breakfast with that face?”). Then, dispensing with the magazine’s illustrious history, he spoke of its “second beginning.” A slide came up, an old-fashioned studio portrait of a young woman with downcast eyes and marcelled blond curls. “Enter Ruth Lilly, another woman of the Midwest with a passion for poetry.” He said that there were no restrictions on how Lilly’s money could be used. “Her gift, both for its size and for the freedom it bestows, seems to me the purest possible expression of her love for poetry.” He enumerated the problems he sees with poetry today. “It’s when there is no audience beyond each other that artists talk about art for art’s sake. It’s when there’s no one else to write for that artists write for the ages. An awareness of this led our board in its mission statement to commit the foundation to pursue ‘a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.’ ” He advanced to a slide showing a bullet-point list of the foundation’s initiatives. When he stopped talking, after precisely twenty minutes, an aura of satisfaction suffused the room.
Later, I read a poem of Barr’s called “Restoration” that made me think about the perspective he might be bringing, in addition to his Wall Street background, to the job. The poem begins, “I love to recover the quality / of things in decline,” and describes a man who methodically scours, wire-brushes, and refinishes everything in his domain but dreams of something larger. The fantasy, and the poem, concludes:
A modest people makes me chief.
(They, too, enjoy the hazy shine
of finished work by last light.)
Storm drains relieved, brick walks relaid,
a heritage of dust and wrappers
is renounced. The square square,
trim trim, the town for once
is like an artist’s conception of the town.
EDITORS’ NOTE: In “The Moneyed Muse” (February 19th & 26th), Dana Goodyear refers to submissions that she made to Poetry in 1998; a 2003 submission of hers should also have been mentioned.
What can two hundred million dollars do for poetry?[Illustration]Caption: ;Among poets, Ruth Lilly’s gift has been met with ambivalence. — ARNOLD ROTH