The Well-Endowed 'Poetry' Magazine

It's been nearly three years since pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly donated $170 million to tiny Poetry magazine in Chicago. But changes have already come to the magazine. Judy Valente reports from Chicago.

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It has been nearly three years since pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly donated $170 million to tiny Poetry magazine in Chicago. Poetry is the nation's oldest poetry journal. It introduced the work of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, among others. A foundation was formed to oversee the magazine and the Lilly bequest. Its advisory board recently announced plans to widen Poetry's audience. But some people are wondering if good fortune will change the magazine in unexpected ways. From Chicago, Judy Valente reports.

JUDY VALENTE reporting:

The enormity of Ruth Lilly's gift made The Poetry Foundation the envy of arts organizations, but euphoria soon gave way to birthing pains. Joseph Parisi, Poetry magazine's longtime editor, took over as executive director in February 2003. It was Parisi's years of cordial correspondence with the reclusive Mrs. Lilly, herself an aspiring poet, which had led to the gift. But six months later, Parisi abruptly resigned.

Mr. JOSEPH PARISI (Former Editor, Poetry Magazine): I could say just one thing as a general rule that can be verified in anyone's human experience, that money changes everything.

VALENTE: Parisi declined to elaborate further on his departure, but is said to have squabbled with the foundation's board over how to best spend the Lilly money. It's clear money did change the scrappy little magazine and quickly. Poetry once occupied two cluttered rooms behind some book stacks in Chicago's Newberry Library. It's moved to spacious new quarters in a modern downtown office building. Stephen Young, The Poetry Foundation's programs director, had been senior editor of the magazine.

Mr. STEPHEN YOUNG (Programs Director, The Poetry Foundation): Rather than send around office memos all the time, there was an expectation that you would just eavesdrop on people's telephone calls so that the person would not have to then turn around and tell you what transpired on the phone. You would just know, because we worked on top of one another.

VALENTE: Back then, a staff of four did everything from comb through manuscripts to fund-raise, write ads, track circulation and set type. Now 20 consultants perform these and other tasks. By going from arts beggar to arts behemoth, Poetry magazine suddenly gained new and powerful friends that have opinions about how the magazine should behave. Christian Wiman, Poetry's current editor, has tried to guard the magazine's traditional independent streak, but he ran into trouble recently. The magazine published an opinion piece criticizing the post of US Poet Laureate, the creation of the Library of Congress, which happens to be partners with The Poetry Foundation on another project.

Mr. CHRISTIAN WIMAN (Editor, Poetry Magazine): It was sort of a tongue-in-cheek piece, really. It didn't sit so well with them. But I think the magazine, if it's going to stay interesting and volatile, it has to engage these things, no matter what the cost.

VALENTE: Striking the balance falls to a trim, energetic man named John Barr. The 62-year-old Barr became The Poetry Foundation's president just over a year ago. Barr bridges the worlds of finance and verse. A Harvard MBA, he is both an investment banker and the author of six books of poetry.

Mr. JOHN BARR (President, The Poetry Foundation): I think Robert Graves said, `There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money either.' The other point of view comes from Wallace Stevens, who was a businessman, and said, `Money is a kind of poetry.' I think I vote with Stevens.

VALENTE: Barr says the foundation's money can alter an entire art form for the better.

Mr. BARR: If poetry is a marginal art today, it is so, in part, because it's entered the hothouse world of academia, poets writing for other poets. Anything the foundation can do through its programs to nudge poets out of the hothouse and out into the big world will probably benefit the art form, and that's not dumbing down the poetry. It's not cheapening it.

VALENTE: But how to do that? In a move that surprised and dismayed many poets, the foundation decided against giving out individual grants. Instead, it's launched a series of initiatives it says will address poetry's unmet needs. As a first step, the foundation will spend half a million dollars to study the nation's poetry reading habits.

Mr. BARR: Who reads poetry today? Who doesn't? If they don't like poetry, why don't they like it?

Mr. PHILIP LEVINE (Poet): I think it's a waste of a half million dollars.

VALENTE: Philip Levine is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

Mr. LEVINE: Poetry's been with us for centuries, and it will stay with us. I mean, so you find out, you know, people in Amarillo don't tend to read "Gallway Canal."(ph) What the hell are we going to say about that?

VALENTE: To fire up high school students, the foundation, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, in April sponsored a Poetry Recitation Project. Based on the National Spelling Bee, students competed at reciting a famous poem they memorized.

Mr. DAVID BOTTOMS (Poet Laureate, Georgia): This is exactly the approach to poetry that turned off so many students in my generation.

VALENTE: David Bottoms is poet laureate of Georgia.

Mr. BOTTOMS: I mean, I remember very well being forced to memorize poems, and this was all my teachers knew to do with poetry. No one could tell me how a poem worked, how language worked as art. I mean, just simply memorize it and recite it. And this was a real turnoff.

VALENTE: Still, more than 4,500 students participated in a pilot of the Recitation Program. And Barr says students, among others, will find even more poetry this summer when the foundation launches what's being billed as the nation's most comprehensive user-friendly poetry Web site. But Bottoms and others say the real problem is how poetry is taught in the classroom. Joseph Parisi had advocated a series of seminars or institutes where teachers would learn about poetry directly from poets.

Mr. PARISI: If they encountered living authors in the flesh, they would be able to ask them questions. They might learn something about the field very directly from the source, you might say.

VALENTE: John Barr says he's willing to listen to good ideas.

Mr. BARR: We can't be all things to all people, so when we identify an area that we think is an undermet need for poetry in this country, we'll look for a program that will serve that need. Could be our idea, could be somebody else's idea.

VALENTE: And Barr insists the foundation will continue the magazine's famous open-door policy, established 93 years ago by its founder, Harriet Monroe, an open door even for folks like the poet who rode a train all the way from New York and showed up unannounced, hoping for financial help.

Mr. BARR: Our wonderful staff helped him make a copy of his manuscript, and they promised to, you know, get it around the office. On his way out, he stopped at the elevators outside and scrawled in pencil, `Don't shoot the poet,' and then he signed it with his initials. We'd frame it if we could, but it's still out there, as you see this. So a lot of people, for whom poetry is very important in their lives, have been motivated to come forward and make their presence known.

VALENTE: And that's something not likely to change any time soon. For NPR News, I'm Judy Valente in Chicago.

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