Open Letter to the Poetry Foundation

Dear Poetry Foundation and/or Christian Wiman:

Does this count as an open letter, if I never actually send it to you?  I probably won’t, which means you’ll probably never read this — but that’s fine.  If you read this you might reply, and then I’d have to think about replying to your reply.  I’m not the corresponding type; I’m the lazy type.  But I read your editorial on remembering Ruth Lilly in the March issue of your magazine, and I was moved to say something somewhere, so it might as well be here.

What I want to say is this:  I think you’re doing a hell of a job.  You Christian, you Don, Fred, Valerie, Gina, Christina.  John Barr and the board, everyone who works on Poetryfoundation.org.

You’re rich now, so it’s not cool to say this, but I love the Poetry Foundation.  You received an unfathomably large gift 8 years ago, and have done nothing since but work tirelessly putting it to good use.  As a fellow poetry editor, I’m in awe of the outcome — you’ve taken on all the tasks I would have, given the resources, and completed them with a constant sense of elegance and enthusiasm.

Poetry Magazine is tasteful and timely, beautiful in production, and as relevant as a literary journal can be.  Somehow the mood manages to be both austere and inviting, and the discussion at the back of each issue is as interesting as the poetry itself.  I don’t always enjoy the poems you publish — in fact, I probably like less than half — but I’m always left with the sense that you do — that your motives are pure and your selections non-political.  And that’s all you can ask of a literary endeavor.  Tastes are subjective, but tastefulness isn’t, and you’re tasteful.

To top it off, you’ve made the outwardly generous, inwardly smart decision to give it all away online, for free.  In this age of advancing technology, many editors fail to embrace change, and finally render themselves irrelevant.  Your 30,000 subscribers is proof that there will always be a place for poetry as a physical object, and that digital media can enhance the experience at the same time as it expands readership.

Speaking of which, Poetryfoundation.org has become not only the best home for poetry online, but one of the best sites on the internet.  Aesthetically, it somehow manages a rich presentation, without feeling cluttered.  It’s as attractive as it is functional, and makes the most of new media.  The Harriot Blog is a perfect use of the format and the Poetry Tool is an amazing resource.

To sum, the Poetry Foundation has done everything I wish I could do, and has done it better than I could have imagined.  And I’m good.  I don’t settle for second-best, and I don’t find very much to be worthy of praise.  But I’m grateful for the Poetry Foundation, as a reader of poetry, and as an editor of a smaller journal — you provide the perfect, invincible foil for me to struggle against.  Rattle will never catch up to you in circulation or relevance, we can only hope to move closer, so I’ll always have a Sisyphian task to toil on.

So it saddens me to see that you’re still receiving these jealous criticisms, 8 years later.  When you first received the $200 million bequest, the rest of the poetry world was full of quiet — and sometimes vocal — condemnation.  I don’t talk to other editors very often, and still I can think of many occasions where some would complain about the “fairness” of Ruth Lilly’s generosity.  Couldn’t she have done better by giving $200,000 each to a thousand different poetry organizations around the country?  She could have given the money to libraries, so that every community in the U.S. would have one shelf dedicated to contemporary poetry.  Giving that much money to one small group of poets is obscene.

And that’s just what’s said over beer at the AWP.  As Christian Wiman describes in his editorial, the mainstream media — even without the envy — has been no more kind.  “Willy Nilly Lilly” is just one ugly headline.  “The Moneyed Muse” by Dana Goodyear is what stands out for me — the irony of a magazine like The New Yorker, who uses poetry as nothing more than a token badge of high-brow credibility, criticizing a foundation devoted solely to verse was astounding.

Wiman displays much of his own grace in only defending Ruth Lilly, who turned a life of solitude and depression into one of the largest philanthropic gifts in history.  But the Poetry Foundation deserves defending as well.  Ruth Lilly inherited her wealth, and spent the end of her life finding good ways to give it away.  The Poetry Foundation inherited a portion of that, and is now working hard to do the same.

What more could we ask of either of you?

Sincerely,
Tim

15 thoughts on “Open Letter to the Poetry Foundation

  1. Hey, I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking this. Good on you for saying the uncool but necessary thing (and for calling out the New Yorker).

  2. So basically for $200 million we get a quality poetry journal and a great website. Forgive me for being underwhelmed. There’s more of course. I checked the Poetry Foundation’s website and they have some other initiatives, but nothing really groundbreaking in my estimation. In fact, what I read leads me to the conclusion that the Poetry Foundation suffers from “foundation syndrome”, which occurs when a foundation spends as little money as possible to advance its cause and instead concentrates on growing the financial assets of the foundation. With such a huge infusion of cash it seems that the public should be more aware of great modern poets. But since 2003 how many national bestsellers have there been by (or about) serious poets? How many major motion pictures have been released about poets? Ultimately it is up to people themselves to discover poetry, but, especially with all that cash, shouldn’t “Poetry” do more to allow itself to be discovered?

  3. Great example of unfair criticism, Patrick. You’re saying they should be sponsoring more movies starring Gweneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath or Ben Whishaw as John Keats? I hate to break it to you, but that already happens, and it does more harm than good when it comes to getting the general public to know what poetry really is. What we get for $200 million is a center to the national poetry scene that’s going to last all our lives — and luckily some good people running it. And in the magazine, we get a real poetry that actually rises to a level of distribution that isn’t embarrassing.

    Poetry doesn’t need to be saved or marketed, it just needs to be supported. And they’re doing a great job supporting it, in my opinion.

  4. I agree with your letter, and I have to admit their podcast (Wiman’s) is wonderful. But does Poetry Magazine really need more encouragement? They seem pretty content with themselves. Also, I don’t know how exactly, but I like thinking of Rattle as an alternative to the type of poetry Poetry offers. Less academic perhaps? It seems like you must have a book out to get into that mag, so I’d hate to see Rattle follow in Poetry’s giant footsteps.

  5. I’m grateful to Timothy Green for this post, as is everyone here at the Poetry Foundation. We’re a big target, so some of the criticism is to be expected and probably even healthy. But we all work very hard on behalf of poetry and poets, so it’s heartening to have this note of approval.

    To Patrick’s comment, I would offer up the fact that the foundation’s programs — which range from large-scale outreach efforts on NPR and PBS to sponsorships of workshops and seminars — currently put poetry in front of almost twenty million people a year. My personal favorite of these programs, because it’s a discipline near to my heart, is Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation project that this year has about 350,000 high school students memorizing classic and contemporary poems. The finals are in DC in April (and state finals are taking place right now), so if anyone reading this is in the area, I urge you to check it out. The kids are amazing.

    And to Alejandro I would say: Yes! Rattle SHOULD be very different from Poetry, or what’s the point? We receive and read dozens of different journals in our offices, always in the hope of finding someone we might have missed. And sometimes we do.

    As for having to have a book to get into Poetry, no way: we FAVOR writers who haven’t “made it” yet. I’d point to someone like Atsuro Riley, whose fantastic book Romey’s Order is just out from the University of Chicago Press. We published pretty much the entire book, long before anyone had any inkling of who he was. There are dozens of other people I could point to.

    Thanks again to Timothy for his post and to everyone for their comments.

    Christian Wiman

  6. Well there goes the whole Christian-Wiman-won’t-read-this thing…oops.

    Yeah, Alex, we’re definitely different than poetry — less academic is a simple way to put it. We never really publish anything that has a high admission price, no poems that rely heavily on allusion or facts that aren’t self-contained. They do publish new poets, but they tend, I think, to still be poets who are devout students of poetry — MFA types. We’re more likely to publish someone in prison who didn’t even graduate high school, or a cab driver in Tuscon, or a professional nurse who dabbles. You don’t need a complex understanding of poetry to impress us, just a complex understanding of life.

    But the point is, as Christian said above, they’ve been working very hard on behalf of poets and poetry, making a lot of great decisions along the way, and I never doubt that they’re working out of a genuine, selfless love of poetry. And it’s not like that was a given at the start — there’s so much ego and envy in the poetry world that the odds were probably against it.

    I don’t know if they really need encouragement, but I was just throwing this out into wind — I thought I’d say something nice about someone for a change.

  7. Well, Tim just informed me he now uses a new CENSORING device, which automatically eliminates any comment that is too long and contains several or more links. Thus, my Saturday comment was censored. For a cartoon I just drew on Tim and that comment (i.e., criticism of Tim’s Poetry Mag hagiography), see http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/

  8. I agree with Tim on this one. I feel like the endowment helps insure that poetry will remain relevant well into the foreseeable future. This is a good thing.

    It’s also important to think about Poetry Magazine, I think, in terms of it being a rallying point for poets — rather than a contentious “center” we do our best to constantly critique. One thing many of us (poets or otherwise) may forget is that being an editor is by no means easy. If you’ve ever taken on an editorial role, you know that it is impossible to make everyone happy one hundred percent of the time. A young editor myself, this is something I continue to learn about and struggle with.

    I ended up doing a Google search on Christian Wiman after he replied to Tim and found that 1) I really enjoyed his work as a poet — it seemed both honest and well-crafted and 2) that he is by far one of the best essay writers I’ve ever encountered. The guy can flat-out write. In particular, I’m thinking of the article “My Bright Abyss,” which appeared in American Scholar:

    http://www.theamericanscholar.org/my-bright-abyss/

    Prior to Tim’s letter and Wiman’s response, I knew next to nothing about the editor of Poetry Magazine. It was a welcome surprise to find that we have someone as intelligent as Wiman at the helm of the proverbial “ship.” Granted, like Wiman, I’m a native Texan — so I might be a bit biased in terms of geography.

    Even so, I think Tim makes some great points in his letter — and that, as poets, we can all take advantage of what Poetry Magazine has to offer. You should check out the magazine’s website if you haven’t already:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/index.html

    Tim’s right: it provides an example of poetry thriving in cyberspace. The navigation tools are useful and the index of poets and their work is by far one of the best online. I use it nearly everyday.

    If you read the comments to your comment, Christian, thanks for keeping poetry alive.

  9. Just thought I’d post a link and encourage those who aren’t familiar with Poetry Out Loud to check it out at http://poetryoutloud.org/poems/video_bestpractices.html. It really is a great program and has opened a world of opportunity for many students.

    As to your comment, Tim, I agree that “there’s so much ego and envy in the poetry world”, and nowhere is it more evident than online. While I believe, as Solomon said, that “every labor and every skill which is done in is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor”, I don’t see that as all bad. Iron sharpens iron, after all and that’s a good thing, right? It’s just a shame when people choose to use that iron to cut others down. Guess we’ve all been guilty of that at one time or another, though.

    J. Scott, I have Christian’s book “Ambition and Survival” and agree about his ability to write essays. Thanks for the link to his latest essay.

    Christian (if you read this), your opening poem in My Bright Abyss made me think of a story about Karl Barth, the famous theologian who was once confronted by a reporter asking for a brief summary of his twelve thick volumes on church dogmatics. Barth could have given an impressive intellectual reply or a profound theological dissertation. He didn’t. Instead he quoted from a children’s hymn and simply replied, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” That said, in my heart I wanted to finish your poem for you with: That I am loved.

  10. Poetry has become like anything else, a popularity contest. Like every self-contained culture, one of which is predominately manipulated by laws and bi-laws in accordance with good behavior from a Christian moral ground, America and its push for “capital” muddies opinions and beliefs. I would wager the fact that the “best” and the “greatest” poets are the unseen for a variety reasons: slant style, voice recognition and the lack of what the old timers say: “kissing ass.” Charles Simic in an interview said it best (i-view can be found on youtube) when he asserted a line from a grade school student was a line of envy for him. He admonished the young student more so than any other “poet,” because of its purity. Poetry lost its push a long time ago; this coming from somebody who EATS poetry daily. At one time the poet was “revolutionary” and now the poet, is like any other political title accrued through certain “say this, say thats’.” My hope and my prayer is that people rise up who are willing to find our modern Bukowski’s, men and women who care little for any sort of recognition, and because of that are given at least short blibs in honor of their lives. Peace. Oh and quick side note: 200 Million dollars should of been granted to the saving of whales or cancer research or any other socially active group for obvious reasons. The Poetry Foundation is a motorized regurgitation of what already has been heard Tim. Look at most their work: Billy Collins, Simic, Tate, Dickinson, ra ra ra, all of which we’ve heard and read a thousand times.

    • Well obviously I think poetry is important, or else I wouldn’t be doing what I do every day. I think if enough people were the sort that read and wrote real poetry regularly, we wouldn’t need to do things like save the whales, because we’d be conscious enough not to endanger them in the first place. I got through three years as a biochemistry major in college, thinking I’d do cancer research, but what’s the point of extending lives that people aren’t really engaging with? Etc.

      When it comes to regurgitation, I’m more on your side. I think the problem is just that in the past poetry served as a useful vehicle for disseminating new ideas, whereas now it mostly exists for its own sake. “Leaves of Grass” is a manifesto on how to live, so has much value beyond the poetry. Who’s really doing that today? Where’s the grand vision?

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