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100 years of Poetry magazine

DShare senior editor Poetry says magazine got protest letters for years after publishing “Prufrock.” | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Don Share, senior editor at Poetry, says the magazine got protest letters for years after publishing “Prufrock.” | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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100 Years
of Poetry

Poetry magazine celebrates its centennial with a release party for “The Open Door,” featuring editors, writers and live entertainment, 7-10 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior. Admission is free. RSVP at (312) 787-7070 or

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:04AM

P oetry magazine, founded in Chicago by the legendary Harriet Monroe, celebrates its centennial anniversary in October with the publication of “The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine” (University of Chicago Press, $20), edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman.

In the anthology, Share and Wiman — the magazine’s current senior editor and editor, respectively — offer a selection of poems that retraces the magazine’s eclectic history, although not in chronological order and with no particular emphasis on the poets of the canon. True, some of the most famous poems ever written are here, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” W.H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles,” James Wright’s “The Blessing,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Children of the Poor” and W.B. Yeats’ “The Fisherman.” But there are also far less-known poems and poets, including several that most readers will never have encountered before.

I discussed the magazine, its history and the new anthology with Share at Poetry’s beautiful new headquarters in River North, with Wiman on speakerphone from Seattle. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Q. What kind of person was Harriet Monroe? What were the qualities that allowed her to get Poetry off the ground?

Wiman: She was very flinty and bold. It took a lot of gumption for a woman to start up a magazine. Her aim was to create a place for poetry that was somehow equal to the venues that had been made for the other arts in Chicago — the Opera House, the Art Institute and so on.

Share: She was also involved with Edwin Muir and the Sierra Club — she was a mountain-climber, and actually died on Machu Picchu, where there’s a monument to her — and so she was very tough. She liked to argue with famous poets.

Wiman: She held her own with them, too. With Wallace Stevens’ most famous poem, “Sunday Morning,” she insisted — wrongly, it now seems to us — that he re-order the stanzas. He did it, then promptly changed them back when he published it in a collection. In another argument with Hart Crane, where she took him to task for being too obscure, I think she was probably correct. They had a famous back-and-forth.

Q. Do you guys have that kind of back-and-forth with poets today? I picture you like Caesar — thumbs-up or thumbs-down, take it or leave it. But maybe you edit and change things all the time.

Wiman: Sure. There are sometimes enormous revisions that we’ve suggested, in line with what she suggested with Stevens. Sometimes we’ll publish part of a poem and not the rest of it. Other times we’ll work with a poet for a year or two to get something right.

Q. If you have to identify a single poem the magazine is most famous for publishing, it’s “Prufrock,” which in Monroe’s day must have taken some nerve.

Share: Yes, the magazine got letters about it for years afterward — people saying, “This isn’t poetry.”

Wiman: She kind of buried it at the back of the issue, because she had real reservations about it, as a lot of critics of the time did. Ezra Pound really persuaded her to publish it, and it’s to Harriet’s credit that she could listen to people. A hundred years on, it looks to us like any undergraduate can understand “Prufrock,” but if you came across it back then, nothing like it existed. It would be so strange that the mind couldn’t take it in.

Share: It’s also true that when you go back and read the issues, for every “Prufrock” there’s a dozen other poems that time has mercifully forgotten.

Wiman: Yeah, she liked a lot of florid, monotonously rhyming poems. Those early issues are full of them.

Q. In fact, the sixth poem in the anthology is “Eros Turannos” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, who wasn’t exactly in the vanguard.

Wiman: Yes, but he was famous at the time, and that’s his most famous poem. Now he’s fallen off the radar a bit, but he’s got a following and is sort of coming back.

Q. How big an advantage or disadvantage was it for the magazine to be in Chicago as opposed to New York?

Wiman: Being in Chicago allowed Poetry to be free of the high-octane literary environment of New York City. And it allowed the magazine to have a kind of independence that it’s always maintained. It also had a Midwestern openness; it was never controlled by a coterie, for example, and being in Chicago had a lot to do with that. Harriet created a different locus of power, a locus of influence, away from New York.

Q. And New York has never forgiven us! [Everyone laughs.] So what was your process for choosing the poems in the anthology?

Wiman: We printed everything out — there were enormous piles everywhere — and Don and I just divided it up. With each poet, we’d mark the poems we thought were contenders, and then pass those on to the other person. And we winnowed and winnowed until we had 50 or so that were fairly obvious. After that it was a nightmare.

Share: We didn’t want “Poetry’s Greatest Hits,” because that had been done before, and a lot of those poems are ubiquitous. We wanted a few of those poems to anchor the book, but we also wanted to have a combination of poems that were both familiar and unfamiliar, so that there could be a surprise every few pages — which is analogous to the mix of things in the magazine today.

Wiman: There’s a huge breadth there. There’s a couple of poets in there under 30 years old — including Jacob Saenz, who’s from Chicago, and Brooklyn Copeland — alongside Yeats and Auden and Sylvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks. How cool is that?

Kevin Nance is a local freelance writer.

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