Poetry Nation


On November 15, Poetry Magazine received a $100 million bequest from Ruth Lilly, heir to Eli Lilly and his like-named pharmaceutical behemoth. This isn’t the first time the arts have been promised better living through chemistry: Carl Djerassi, “father of the birth control pill,” provides residence grants to artists through the Djerassi Foundation. But as lump sums and poetry go, they’ve never gone together like this.

One well-noted irony is that the journal in question rejected Ms. Lilly’s poetry a few dec-ades back—the lesson being that it pays to have standards. Suddenly, those standards are golden with highlights of green, and likely to be read all over. The grande dame of verse journals, Poetry (founded 1912) is of the same generation as Ms. Lilly herself, and no one can gainsay its historical importance: Back when Modernism was young and high, the magazine forwarded the earliest works of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H.D., and William Carlos Williams. But of late it’s become a placid backwater where middlebrow elegies go to die, outcirculated by American Poetry Review and outmoded in comparison to the more contemporary aesthetics of numerous journal-come-latelies. These days, far from the front lines of increasingly chaotic aesthetic struggles, Poetry is a sort of palliative for the anxiety and depression of life on the edge.

Eli Lilly and Company, an early purveyor of synthetic insulin, has done a better job of keeping current. In the same week as the bequest’s announcement, the senate passed the Homeland Security Bill over objections to some rather arbitrary amendments. One of these provides protection against class-action suits for the makers of thimerosal—a mercury-based vaccine additive, developed by Lilly, that some people believe is linked to autism in children. But when one thinks about the wealth of Lilly, one imagines fluoxetine money, under its more recognizable brand name.

That is to say: henceforth, all words published in Poetry Magazine will be underwritten by Prozac. And that expense will be mere pocket change for the new Poetry, now “one of the world’s richest publications,” per the Times. Editor Joseph Parisi suggests (after expanding his staff of four and finding new digs in the journal’s hometown of Chicago) he’d like to publish some first books, and educate middle and high school teachers in poetic goodness. It’s a category he’s comfortable with: “We get to see everything,” he told the Times, “and we get a pretty good idea of who will be the new important poets.”

The vision of an 800-pound tastemaking gorilla, no matter how august, is not a rosy one for all concerned. The poet Juliana Spahr, co-editor of the influential journal Chain, tells the Voice that she hopes Poetry will “support and encourage the unusual wealth of poetries that have developed in the U.S. since the 1960s, especially those outside of their fairly narrow interest and scope.” She’s representatively leery of concentrations of power, and interested in fostering local autonomy. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead of one poetry magazine getting 100 million, 400 magazines got a quarter-million?” she asks. “Which would mean almost every magazine in the U.S. would receive more than enough support.”

That’s a suggestion Parisi is unlikely to heed; he’ll surely use the capital as an endowment, and pursue his own designs with the income of, say, $7 million per annum in perpetuity. What could said stash do to fundamentally advance the state of poetry? Let’s think big:

1. If you really believe in education, use the income to lobby for pro-education candidates in elections at a national level. A few more congressmen, a senator, and we could have fewer tax cuts for corporations—wouldn’t it be swell to see Lilly money do that?—and more teachers, more texts, more classrooms.

2. Buy a million poetry books every year and give them away. Let every poet published the previous year nominate one

unpublished manuscript. From these, choose 100 titles utterly at random—previously selected poets ineligible—then publish and distribute 10,000 copies of each.

Publishers will start releasing more poetry, 100 poets a year get a “royalty grant,” and the number of contemporary poetry books in circulation will increase by orders of magnitude.

3. Poetry Magazine could offer free medical coverage to every poet accepted for publication, provided he or she did not already have a medical plan. This would be a boon for the many institutionally unsupported poets, the very sort often found working outside codified tastes. In return, their submissions would revivify Poetry as a forum for contemporary, ambitious work.

Such a scheme would burn a tiny fraction of the bequest; instead of investing the remainder, Poetry could secede from the Union, purchase the Republic of the Marshall Islands (GDP: $99 million), and appoint their very own poet laureate, who would then meet the U.S. laureate in a battle to the death, wreaking unfathomable destruction across the landscape. The eventual winner could then sink beneath the seas for a thousand years, during which poems would somehow still get written, some of them in languages not yet invented.

What would you do on poetry’s behalf? Send an e-mail titled “The Cool 100 Million” to [email protected], and three winning suggestions will receive a Village Voice T-shirt—about as bequesty as we get around here.