Grace Cavalieri Get Grace's books @ Amazon.com
Poems
The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress

Father
I Gave You My Work, Gilbert
Don't Undersell Yourself
January
You Can't Start The Spiritual Journey
The Protest
Going South
Two by Two
This Is
Helpmates
Interviews
Washington Independant Review
Danmurano.com
Interviews
Grace Cavalieri on MiPOradio
Poetry Commentaries
"INNUENDOES"
Poetry Interviews
"ON LOCATION"
Interviews with
U.S. Poets Laureate
Interviews with Significant Poets
Currency of the Heart
An Interview with Grace Cavalieri
Scene4 Magazine
Grace Cavalieri's book and theater reviews at The Montserrat Review
Articles
Tapes and Books
Pinecrest Rest Haven Audio Tape
WPFW 89.3FM Poetry Anthology
Ordering Information

© 2013 Grace Cavalieri

Reed Whittemoore

"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"

An interview with Reed
Whittemoore by Grace Cavalieri

In 2002, the Ruth Lilly Foundation Awarded 100 million dollars to Poetry Magazine, America’s first poetry journal, celebrating its 90th year. The Poet and the Poem, A history of Poetry Magazine, an interview with Reed
Whittemore by Grace Cavalieri on THE POET AND THE POEM: WPFW-FM, 1990.


Grace
Reed Whittemore is the author of more than 14 books. He is a biographer and one of America’s most distinguished poets. He has twice served as the consultant in poetry to the library of congress. He is Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, he is the biographer of William Carlos Williams, and he is presently writing his memoirs. I am Grace Cavalieri. Reed, as we embark upon an investigation of Poetry magazine, will you give us the background for poetry in America in 1912, when Poetry magazine came on the scene? What was going on?

Reed
Well, that’s a pretty big order, Grace. I suppose you begin by saying that it’s a big order in various ways. For example, it’s a big order aesthetically; it’s also a big order socially, because the world war was just coming on. And then it’s a big order psychologically, because Poetry magazine was Harriet Monroe’s magazine, and she was a very special person. She was 52 years old when the magazine began; she was a maiden lady, born in 1860 of a quite pious family. The father was a lawyer whose fortune went downhill somehow or other in the 1890’s; the family remained genteel. They sent her to school to a convent in Washington, in Georgetown, when she was 16, and she spent two years there. That was as far as her education went, formally. Then she was out on her own, more or less, and she became a very active person in all sorts of ways. She was a reporter, she lived in New York for a while, trying her hand at poetry and plays and all sorts of things, while remaining a maiden lady, prim and proper, and doing many of the genteel things that maiden ladies with a certain amount of money do. She was traveling all the time, so she got into some strange situations in her hometown, Chicago, when she was coming on 30.

Grace
I guess the next thing I will jump to is how Poetry affected these poets. First of all, we have publications of “Prufrock,” and Yeats and Frost. Then we have William Carlos Williams being published, and eventually Stevens, Pound – would these figures have been just as well without Poetry, or was it really instrumental in their rise?

Reed
I think it was influential, though if it hadn’t happened, why, something else like it might have happened. The American world particularly seemed to be ripe for it. For here is where you get into a funny kind of sociological problem: why did we have, all of a sudden, “little magazines?” My easy guess is that they appeared as a result of the rise of big magazines, the popular magazines, those that had begun to move in the 1890’s. Before then, the magazine business had been relatively decorous. Thus the Dial, which was a highly intellectual magazine in the mid-nineteenth century, and the Atlantic Monthly, and, I guess, Harpers, were all sort of the same. Then along came the popular magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post, and I’m a little hazy now on all the others that came along, but it became evident that there was such a thing as a popular audience in America. Suddenly, democracy was raising its often-ugly head, since those magazines were commercially based, that is, they needed capital to get started and they needed large audiences to survive. This provoked a kind of reaction among people who were not very much concerned with money – Pound was of course an extreme example. So you have a funny conflict going on here between the new world of big magazines and this subculture, which is in a kind of a way resisting it, and I don’t know how you describe this in terms of Harriet, because Harriet was very conscious of both. She had been art critic, of all things, for the Chicago Tribune for a while – I think she had done that also in New York – and, you know, art – think of all the money that was being poured into art in the form of museums and so on back then – she was very much impressed by how much money that art was getting, but poetry wasn’t getting any.

Grace
Well, what did she want?

Reed
She wanted both. She wanted a magazine – she had a very aesthetic notion of beauty and wonder and all that, so she didn’t like the notion of money controlling things. On the other hand, she knew perfectly well that she needed money, and she also wanted a fairly large circulation for Poetry, so right there, in Harriet’s kind of double mission in life, Poetry magazine set forth into the world and produced, I think, in reaction, some magazines who weren’t as much interested in money and in, well, a vague notion of culture, but more interested in poetry as, well, a special art, a trade of its own kind.


Grace
So she was really aware of making a difference. She was conscious, she was idealistic, but she was very energetic about wanting to change the world.

Reed
That’s right. And she met the right man when she met Pound, because he was a great civilization-saver on his own.

Grace
How could they have possibly gotten along?

Reed
Well, they didn’t. They didn’t and they did. He resigned, within a year of having been appointed, in a huff.

Grace
What was his official position?

Reed
Foreign editor. He resigned in November, and rejoined in December. It wasn’t very long, but there were all sorts of things in the wings after the beginning of Poetry, and one of the things in the wings was May Lowell from Boston. She had quite a bit of money and she thought she’d start a magazine, and she got in touch with Ezra Pound, and for a moment, Ezra Pound was wooed by her. She at first managed to get him to find out if she couldn’t take over an English magazine called the Egoist, and there are two or three letters in which it looks as if Pound had arranged that for her, then it turned out that he hadn’t. And she was in and out of England, and she managed to offend both Harriet Monroe and Pound before she was through. But when Pound resigned in November, he did it partly because of all these activities with Amy, and he wrote letters to Amy saying that Harriet was bloody awful and so on, then he resigned. An example of the kind of thing that he was sending to Harriet in the way of other than poems, “Dear H.M: -- I don’t know whether he had been calling her Harriet, but at any rate, in this letter – “Congratulations on March.” This was a magazine coming out every month, which is also, you know, pretty impressive, because most little magazines these days don’t think of doing that – “Congratulations on March. While it contains nothing wildly interesting, it contains nothing, or rather no group of poems, which is wholly disgusting.” And then he would go on later to things that he thought really were disgusting, and he gives her all sorts of examples of the sort of verse that he doesn’t like. Here’s an example of the things he doesn’t like: “Oft in a stilly night I dallied in the glade On the banks of the Schuylkil as often I have strayed…”

Grace
I’m with him.

Reed
Yeah, I’m with him, too, but how do you pronounce “Schuylkill?” A little bit later he was sending her his own poems, and of course sending her also “The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and there’s a line of his, this is the line: “Dawn enters with little feet like a gilded Pavlova.” Now, you can look at that as one line or two lines. He split it into two lines, and the second line was a little indented. Harriet didn’t like that indentation, and she proposed either to have one line, or to move it over. He was having none of that; that’s the sort of argument that would really stir him up. And then when he went “Prufrock,” which was not for a couple of years, she really didn’t like the poem. She didn’t like it much, and it took quite a few angry letters from him to get her to publish it, and it was published, and it created quite a stir. A lot of people wrote in – this is an example of how Poetry was important then – a lot of people wrote in and were angry about it, a lot of people came in, “Yes, it’s good,” and then came the business of the prizes. Very early, Harriet had said, “We are going to pay these poets, and we’re going to give prizes every year. Well, so along came the prizes for whatever it was – 1915, I think, was when the Prufrock poem might have won the prize – it didn’t, and of course Ezra hit the ceiling. He said, “That’s the only decent poem you’ve printed since the magazine began, so why don’t you go into some other business?” He did finally resign as Foreign Editor in 1917, so he was with the magazine, and very active, for five or six years, and in that time, he brought some wonderful poetry to her, and some not very good poetry of his own, plus some good poetry of his own. He also wrote in the back about his many instructions about how to write a poem, as you can imagine. He was a basic pedagogue, he couldn’t open his mouth without telling you what to do. In an early issue – I think it was about 1913 – he had a series of don’ts: do not do this, do not do that, and they’re quite famous and wonderful.

Grace
Is your pamphlet about little magazines – put out by the University of Minnesota, you talk about Poetry as ultimately being a magazine of craft, and in another place, you say that there was an attempt at universality, that if you print everyone, you’re bound to get something. Which was it – was there an absolute arbiter of taste, which was dictating what was accepted? Did Harriet Monroe really try to pick the wild card at some point? What was the editorial attitude and how did Pound influence that? We know that his was a doctrinaire attitude – what he said was right for poetry – but was there an attempt to cull what was going on in America, or was it just picking favorites and printing them?

Reed
Well, I think it was a very serious attempt to find a center for Poetry, and I don’t think it succeeded. Now, a magazine that can print, on the one hand, “Prufrock,” which was a revolutionary event, and on the other hand, Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” is a magazine that has, you know, quite a serious split in the middle, and among the problems there was not just an aesthetic problem, but also a religious problem, and I haven’t quite figured that out. But Ezra, in his way, like Elliot, had a kind of historical view of poetry. He was constantly referring to great works in the past, and he got involved with Chinese and Greek and other works, and doing a lot of translations, really, taking his signals for an art from a variety of old cultures. Harriet had very little of that n her background, I think. I don’t think she was historically oriented, and what she did have in her background was a very good, solid kind of Christian education, I don’t know how much of it came from that convent, but when Ezra began to talk about these different cultures, and in one of his poems he talked about various leaders of religions and mentioned Christ as being like a couple of others – dead, she removed the word “Christ” and put in “Baal.” That was another source of difficulty.

Grace
I bet. I would just love to see the letters about that.

Reed
So there are all sorts of things going on here, and all I can say is that Harriet was not a patsy, she really fought back. She was very good, and I think she learned as much from Pound as she learned from anybody, no doubt about it, and she respected him a great deal. When Pound resigned in 1917, he went off to what was then the Little Review. The Little Review was a big one, and I’ve got an anthology of that of some interest. It was edited by two women, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. Jane Heap was the noisy one; she was always writing editorials like Pound’s, and I think Ezra got along a little bit better with them, and it was when he accepted the Foreign Editorship with them that he resigned from Poetry, and I think this must have discouraged Harriet.

Grace
Where was she going to find her source now?

Reed
One of the reasons Pound went over to the Little Review, however, wasn’t his fighting with Harriet. He had also gotten on his string a lot of prose writers, and of course, here is another instance of the problem with Poetry: Poetry was poetry; they never printed stories. They printed lots of good reviews and talks – essays about poetry, but no prose. And suddenly – let’s see, they had on their string particularly James Joyce, at the Little Review, and Wyndham Lewis and I guess D.H. Lawrence. All of these people were of interest to Pound, too.

Grace
But Poetry was the first poetry magazine?

Reed
The first – I can’t think of another. You see, what happened before Poetry – and that’s why I mentioned this business of the big magazines – if anybody was going to get printed, like Harriet herself, they went to Harper’s or the Atlantic Monthly, and I think Harriet appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, she corresponded a little bit with the editor, I’ve forgotten who he is. So there was that world over there.


Grace
How many little magazines, then came rising out from the wake of Poetry, in just that immediate ten-year period?

Reed
I’d think it was a whole little-magazine movement, and I think it is a movement, as in a kind of a way beginning with that. But of course it’s a complicated thing, and one of the things that’s been neglected in the scholars writing about little magazines has been the feminist movement. There were a couple of interesting feminist magazines that I can’t I don’t feel qualified to talk about, but women were invading both the popular magazine thing and a more rebellious, controversial kind of literature.

Grace
This is little known.

Reed
There was nothing about that in Harriet’s magazine. She had plenty of female contributors, but I don’t think she thought of herself as a feminist. Well, that’s something to be thought of, but I think aside from that, what came out of Poetry eventually was hundreds of little magazines, all of them resisting popular magazines, all of them, avoiding the “money quotient,” as it were. As I say in my little pamphlet, the way you could start a magazine was to get a mimeograph machine, put it in your basement and do it. Then, on the other hand, you could also have a lot of money and do it, but the money business was not, from the point of view of these rebels, the serious thing.

Grace
You just need it to get to do what you need to do. Just to go back to Harriet for a moment, though, what did she hope to do? Did she have the feeling that there was a Eastern Establishment, and here she was in Chicago, and she was going to – these were upstarts when that is actually not at all true? I mean, didn’t she believe that she was the Establishment and was creating a standard for poetry in America? What is this “Eastern Establishment” business in Western thought?

Reed
I think Chicago was in good place for her to be, because it was in in-between kind of place. Here was this big new industrial center, it was also a great point for immigrants, it was a great American town, as Sandburg said in his poem, “Chicago,” which I think was printed in Poetry. And she was genteel, she was born genteel and she had all the weapons of old-time gentility behind her, as it were, even though her father seems to have not done very well with money, toward the end. She had enough money so she was genteel, but she was also involved in a town which was transforming – was, as it were, a symbol of the transformation of America from old money to new money and all of that. And she knew all about that. She also knew the Eastern world; she’d spent a lot of time in New York – she got around. So when she went out after those Chicago businessmen, she was aware of the class differences permeating the whole structure of Chicago, and you can’t ignore that in this.

Grace
Were there class differences in the poetry?

Reed
Yes, and I think she represented them rather well. I mean, “Prufrock” is a very snobbish poem in all sorts of ways, it looks even more snobbish now, and yet Sandburg and Masters and so on, they were good examples of kind of Midwest folksiness. They weren’t genteel, particularly.

Grace
How long was she with the magazine?

Reed
She – I think – stopped being active on it after about ten years, in the early 20’s, and at that time the editorship – and I think this is probably important – the editorship began to change fairly frequently, and it didn’t have a commanding presence. She was a commanding presence, in an odd way. She – I don’t think you can quite define what her presence was, but there she was.

Grace
Today we call it “energy”.

Reed
And after that, with the constant change of editors, it did not have that commanding presence. She was also aware of the importance of the controlling editor. She joked a little about the argument which came up between Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. She was sort of standing by the side as she watched that, and she said, “Well, here are two admirals of two navies, and they just couldn’t seem to get those two navies together.

Grace
Who were some of the editors followed? Karl Shapiro…

Reed
Alice Henderson was the one who worked with her in those ten years a lot, and then came a whole bunch of others; I don’t have a list of them. Karl Shapiro came along about 1950.

Grace
The reason I bring him up is that it is thought he’s somewhat of a curmudgeon about Poetry magazine. Isn’t it true that he didn’t feel that its influence has been always fertile in America, or am I wrong?

Reed
Well, I think that’s probably true. I would say that the kind of influence I’ve been talking about with Poetry magazine was in those early years, and soon as Harriet got off the scene – and that’s another reason, I think, to emphasize the importance of Harriet Monroe – as soon as Harriet got off the scene, the magazine did lose its, your word, “energy,” and it became a much more diffuse, miscellaneous kind of thing, which is, as the whole, the reason why it has lasted so long, but also the reason for Karl’s complaint.

Grace
Yes. I’m still struck with something you said early on, and that was, how people would write in response to a poem, and how important poetry was in those days, so I’m getting the picture that when one percent of the people owned 99 percent of the land, they were a very active one percent.

Reed
And this is what has happened, simply because Poetry has lasted so long. You see, when Karl took over Poetry, it had been going, what, 40 years? And 40 years is an incredible time for a little magazine. A little magazine isn’t supposed to go more than two, sometimes they go more …

Grace
Amazing.

Reed
But the energy for such a thing is lost, even if the money isn’t.

Grace
So it was really a cultural icon.

Reed
And I think to go back to Harriet as the art editor or art critic for the Tribune for a while, and I don’t know if she had other ties than to the Tribune, she knew art at a time when art was in a terrific ferment, too, and there was a whole lot of terrific excitement both before the Armory show in New York and after. The Armory show was in 1913, I think, and that shook up everybody in New York, and then it went on tour, and it was in Chicago, but even before that, all these revolutionary Dadaists and Impressionists and so on were floating around, and they were a model of dissent, you se, and every one of them had his own theories, like Ezra Pound, of what should happen, and if you simply transfer that kind of ferment over to poetry, I think you get an image of the excitement of the period.

Grace
How did William Carlos Williams Like Harriet?

Reed
Well, he doesn’t seem to have been as vitriolic about her as Ezra. He had a little exchange – I don’t know if I can find it – he had a little exchange with her about one of his poems. She said she didn’t like it very much and he’d returned without a Poundian kind of thing, saying that it probably wasn’t very good anyway. I don’t know, I don’t think that he had any kind of run-ins with her.

Grace
But he was published and printed.

ReedHe was published there, but he was a slow bloomer, or a late bloomer. I guess the phrase is, and that’s the interesting thing about Williams. He was dominated aesthetically by Pound, who kept telling him how to write his poetry, and he didn’t have the kind of arrogance about his work that pound did.

Grace
Would they have felt bad if they were refused publication? I mean, was it that kind of force in America, that it was the only thing of its kind, and if they rejected a poem, would that be a matter of some consternation?

Reed
Well, I think Williams got used to it. I don’t think Pound ever got used to it. He didn’t like to be rejected; he just blew up. Williams got used to it. Williams was, I think, an interesting outgrowth from the kind of rebelliousness that Pound represents. Williams just plowed along for fifty years as a doctor, and every time he didn’t get a poem accepted, he could just go off and…

Grace
Doctor.

Reed
Doctor. And he was very American, living in a small town, living out of the way of all these important aesthetic figures. He had another life. On the other hand, he also had a lot of respect for what Pound stood for, and for all the little magazines that, in a kind of a way, Pound spawned.

Grace
What did Pound stand for?

Reed
Pound stood for – well, he stood for – what a question! I think maybe just read what he told Harriet at the beginning. He said that this is a very nice idea, this Poetry magazine, can you teach the American poet that poetry is an art, an art with technique, with media, an art that must be in constant flux, a constant change of manner, if it is to live? Can you teach that American that it is not a pentametric echo of the sociological dogma printed in last year’s magazine? Maybe. Anyhow, you have work before you.

Grace
Oh, I think that’s a wonderful answer.

Reed
And he gets onto another problem, which has a lot of bearing upon Chicago. Here’s the most American city of all – “Are you for poetry or American poetry? The latter is more important, but it is important that America should boost the former, provided it doesn’t mean blindness to the art. The glory of any nation is to produce art that can be exported without disgrace to its origin.” So he was for America with qualifications …

Grace
… from his point of view.

Reed
From his point of view. But he’d already declared himself an expatriate, which is another point of difference between him and Williams, you see.

Grace
Yes. I’m getting a sense of the aesthetics of the magazine while he was influential. Then that takes – we cannot avoid the word “political,” then – as long as we have an aesthetic standard, there has to be a political underpinning. Can you remark about that? What are the politics of that poetry?

Reed
Well, I think, here’s a point at which Pound is awfully slippery, because he was trying very hard in those early days to separate poetry from politics, so that you had some sort of a permanent basis, a standard of values, that didn’t have to do with who was in office or what particular culture, cultural claptrap was in charge. But then, in the 20’s, he became interested in the political problems, particularly of money, having to do – money and poetry, and once he got into money, which he didn’t know as much about as Eliot did, once he got into money, he got into trouble, because money led him to think of ways of getting away from usury. He felt that the bankers had taken it all over, and of course, the bankers had been partly in charge of starting Poetry magazine! He felt the bankers had taken over too much, and he became a kind of Italian socialist – “fascist” is the word that was applied later – trying to, he had a scheme, along with a socialist in England named Major Douglas, a scheme for controlling usury by having the government dictate low interest rates, so that the money wouldn’t go flying out the window.

Grace
What years were they?

Reed
Well, he really got going on that after the Crash in 1929, but he was interested in it during the 20’s, and so was Eliot, and it was after the Crash that suddenly, in the midst of all of Pound’s cantos – he was writing this immense collection of cantos – in the midst of Pound’s cantos appeared an immense quantity of anti-usury and also anti-Semitic and anti-this-and-that material, all of which certainly could be called political. Now this was a switch for him; in the early poetry you do not find anything like this, and there’s a wonderful line in one of his early poems, in “Personae,” about how wonderful it is to bring down a few lines from the mountain unsullied – that is, unsullied by politics.

Grace
Imagine poets thinking they could change the world.

Reed
Yeah, but he did. And he, well, I think perhaps the point at which he began to change the world was with his wonderful scheme for saving T.S. Eliot … You probably know about the Belle Esprit. The Belle Esprit was a small organization started by Pound and, I guess, ended by Pound. When Eliot was in particular trouble – he was having marital trouble and trouble with his family back in America, and he was working hard at the bank, and he was having a nervous breakdown, and he’d just written “The Waste Land,” which, incidentally, Harriet didn’t print – “The Waste Land” was printed first in England and then in the Little Review – and Pound sent it over to Margaret Anderson – but there was Pound trying to save Eliot, wanted to save him from the bank, that’s maybe the beginning of it all, by giving Eliot a money backing, and so he went around pretty much the way Harriet went around all those bankers in Chicago, trying to get small amounts of money from a whole bunch of patrons. I don’t think he got very many, but that was all just for one guy. He thought if you could save Eliot, you could help save Western civilization. Oh!

Grace
What happened to Harriet?

Reed
Well, she was a strong woman, who I think had – I couldn’t figure out what her ailment was, but from very early, she may have had TB, and she was in and out of hospitals when she was an adolescent, and then she got healthier and she took good care of herself. She was very athletic, and went on all these around-the-world things, but she was always walking everywhere, so she got – she was obviously still hale and hearty at 52, when she started Poetry. In the 20’s, I think, she began taking all sorts of trips; maybe this was to get away from the magazine that was not working very well. I think she died in ’36, and died in an extraordinary place, in the Andes, South America, at which time, of course, there was great moaning and natural lamentation back in Chicago about her death. How old would she have been then?

Grace
Seventysomething?

Reed
Must have been.

Grace
But wasn’t it a mountain climbing accident?

Reed
Yes, mountain climbing in her seventies. So she died down there, and everyone wrote nice tributes to her, including Ezra.

Grace
Is Poetry magazine today anything like what it was?

Reed
No. no, it’s an institution now, and I guess it was an institution in Karl’s time, too, and this may have been the reason why Karl made that remark. You mentioned that Karl Shapiro was a kind of curmudgeon about it. Yeah, I think that its institutional quality was what annoyed Karl. Little magazines aren’t supposed to be institutions, they’re supposed to perform another function.

Grace
But then they may combust. If they are too vital and alive, they could – institutions are icons and they’re monoliths, and they are made of marble and they last a long time.

Reed
Yes.

Grace
But if you’re so flexible and so volatile, it may not have been here.

Reed
That’s right. One of the magazines that Pound was instrumental in starting in England, I guess just during World War One, was called Blast, and I think that’s characteristic.

Grace
Enough said! Where can we put it today in the landscape?

Reed
Well, I think it started things, as I said. I think it really did start things, but what have we got now? I suppose one has to switch over to the problem of a culture – and I think of little magazines as a culture – a culture that has gotten so diffuse that nobody writes in. We were talking about, you know, the excitement back there in 1912 and ’13, but now you do not have it. Furthermore, one of the nice things about that opening statement of Pound’s was that he was thinking in terms of a kind of world literature, and American literature fitting in with world literature. Thinking big. Now, for the most part, our little magazines are local, which isn’t to say that they’re provincial. We aren’t provincial anymore, we don’t have a regional culture, but we do have local magazines, so if you publish a magazine, a poetry magazine, a new poetry magazine, shall we say, in Washington, your circulation is apt to be in Washington. The problem of diffusing a little magazine, getting distribution for it is now immense. You really cannot get much distribution in America without a distributor, without all the mechanics of middlemen. We had some interesting meetings and discussions about this back in the sixties when I was involved with little magazines. We were thinking of all sorts of ways of trying to get the magazines around.

Grace
When you said you were involved with them, what was – specifically, what were you doing?

Reed
We started the association of literary magazines, and it’s now – it’s still going; it’s changed its name, but it’s still going, and I recall the editor of Poetry was Henry Rago then, and he came to our meetings, and of course, he represented the Old Man of the Sea here, in a way. He had a circulation. By 1960, which is when I think of this association, but 1960, Poetry had been going 50 years or nearly, it had, just in terms of libraries, a solid subscription list. Libraries are where Poetry survives, really. And it’s just been around. That’s another institutional factor. But how does a little magazine get off the ground? Well, it takes years. Libraries are like that. Well, so Henry Rago was at this meeting, but he was sitting out there as one of the grand old men. He wasn’t a grand old man – I mean, he hadn’t been on the magazine all that time, but he was representing something institutional in a circle of editors who weren’t, for the most part, institutional, and we had all sorts of nice schemes. There was one scheme, a fellow had a small cabin cruiser, I don’t think it was more than 15 feet long, on the Mississippi River, and he was going to go up and down the river and sell the magazines, he’s going to fill that boat full of magazines, so …

Grace
Another Harriet Monroe.

Reed
Yeah.

Grace
Can you think of the biggest problems the magazine has faced? Public opinion certainly hasn’t been one of them. I don’t think it’s been assailed from many sides, Poetry magazine. I think it’s pretty sacrosanct. I guess funding has been a problem throughout the years.

Reed
I don’t know the funding problem, and I think you should probably go into that with some of the more recent editors. It would be interesting to know what sort of financial crises the thing has had over the years, or whether it’s been fairly stable. The early donors – some of them are quite famous, you know, famous patrons and donors to other things than Poetry – the early donors, what happened when they passed away? Who did pick it up?

Grace
The problems that they faced, I guess I’m trying to think, what would be the problems in staying alive, and one would be staying alive, I mean just survival financially, and second would be the changeover of commands and how that would either lose strength and force or not. I mean, it could have fallen apart at any editorial change, it could have fallen apart. Isabelle Gardner was a kind of an editor, Ago was a kind of an editor, but it went on and on, in spite of its problems, so I’m still trying to get at the spine of it – in some way we need it. In some way we need something to go on, even if it’s too conservative, not very adventurous, sometimes, maybe even unfair, but maybe we need to have one thing going on because the other things come and go, because I’d be afraid to be without anything. Maybe the whole America feels that way about Poetry magazine. Let’s not lose this.

Reed
Well, oh, I would agree. I don’t think there’s any reason for running down the institutional side of the magazine, as perhaps I have. You do have something or other going. There are, I suppose, a few other relatively institutional magazines now, a couple of them in the South, Sewanee Review, then there’s the Hudson Review in New York. The institutional quality of little magazines is, as a matter of fact, is very prominent now because colleges have gotten in on the act, or universities, and that has been unfortunate in many ways, because they are institutions, and fighting the administration of a college is almost as bad as fighting all those businessmen in Chicago. It is a handicap.

Grace
What prizes actually cropped up because of Poetry magazine? Poetry prizes and awards – wasn’t Poetry magazine instrumental in the creation of some? When did the Bollingen come on the scene?

Reed
It became famous when it came to the Library of Congress, after World War Two. It was spawned by the Jung people. Carl Jung, the Jungian set, they had a lot of money, and started a foundation, the Bollingen Foundation. I think it’s a castle in Switzerland that was owned by Jung, or where he lived, and so it takes its signals from that.

Grace
So there’s no connection to Poetry magazine.

Reed
Not to my knowledge, no.

Grace
But that was a big thing, and that, of course, involved Pound too, because after World War Two, the award was made through the agency of the Library of Congress, and the Library of Congress had a committee, and on the committee were various characters, like Eliot, Tate; a lot of southerners. We haven’t even gotten into the Southerners … You yourself, actually, won the Harriet Monroe Award one year, which you had forgotten until I mentioned it this morning.

Reed
I think it was for a long poem I don’t like very much now called “A Closet Drama.”

Grace
Okay, how did that prize come about? Did the editors just decide the best written in the magazine that year?

Reed
That’s right. They have, I don’t know how many, but ten or fifteen awards every year, and they’re relatively small awards. The Bollingen Award is a big one, and I think now it’s every two years, but it’s lots of dough, so I don’t know what I got for the Harriet Monroe thing, a hundred dollars, something like that. Now that was built into Harriet plan from the beginning. So, aside from these fifty businessmen who were going to give a certain amount of money each year, she went out and got special money for special awards, and I don’t know who supplies the money for the awards, but that’s a separate money.

Grace
Do repeat what Harriet Monroe and you would say about Poetry today.

Reed
I think that she would see a loss of energy, a loss of excitement, a loss of a center, and although she wasn’t one with the kind of center that Pound would have liked at the time, she did have a sense of there being some sort of center, and that poetry was going to be right there, an important art, and what’s happened to poetry since then is it’s been relegated to artsy-craftsy kinds of things in many, many areas, and this is too bad. It is a filler for so many magazines, it is unfortunate, but that is the case.

Grace
When we look at it and see that poetry was something these people were willing to live and die for, it does strike you. Well, I’m really getting into this, because there is an unwieldy passion here, I mean, an irrational drive that I think I understand, but it made things happen in 1912. If you looked at the odds of Poetry magazine being born, even, it’s so wacky, I mean, just coming out of somebody’s thought forms and head, and these people, these aristocrats running around, knocking on doors getting money, and writing obscure pieces of opera on Haymarket, it’s just so wild, but from it came a power and a truth that I am awed by, I don’t see it today.

Reed
No, every once in a while you have to look around for something new, as Ezra Pound said. One of his books was called, “Make it New.”

Grace
That’s nice.

Reed
And we haven’t had anything new, let’s say, perhaps since the Beats. The Beats were pretty interesting for a while – I just finished reviewing a biography of Ginsberg, and there’s an energy there that started in the mid-50’s …

Grace
The Beats didn’t get published readily, though; they were a little bit snooty about Poetry magazine.

Reed
Well, they didn’t like Poetry.

Grace
No. I think Ferlinghetti has been published in it.

Reed
I don’t know how you get into the political thing, but it does seem to me that poetry has become isolated from politics in that magazine, in Poetry magazine, to a degree that’s been unfortunate … and part of the energy of the original thing was political energy, even though they didn’t realize it. Everybody was excited about poetry because they thought It moved people in certain directions, you know, it was part of life. Harriet wasn’t so sure about it. Ezra was very sure about it, and that’s how he got into usury and so on. If you think of poetry as a device, as something that really moves the spirit of man, as it were, then of course it’s political, it’s a public thing. And now I think it isn’t a public thing, it’s a private thing, so we have hundreds of private poets, and they’re being printed in Poetry magazine, but it’s only occasionally that you get some private poets who also go public, and oddly enough, the Beats were civilization-savers, too, in their crazy way. You do need to have this involvement, and it’s not with us anymore. The history of the Partisan Review is partly this. It started, of course, as a communist sheet, straight party sheet, 1932-1937, then it broke away, and it became sort of a New York intellectual. Those New York intellectuals were oriented toward politics, but increasingly they became less political, and certainly not Marxist, but the Partisan Review started as partisan review, you see, and the Fugitive in the South started as a political rebellion against, well, good old boys in the south, all that sort of thing, and as soon as that kind of impulse goes, you’re in trouble – I mean in poetry, not in Poetry magazine, but in the art.

Grace
The voice of Reed
Whittemore, historian, scholar, poet. I’m Grace Cavalieri.


Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. Her latest book is Cuffed Frays (Argonne House Press.) Her newest play, "Quilting the Sun" was presented by the Smithsonian Institution, March 2003. She hosts and produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.