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?