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The Chicago Magazine That Has Helped Define Poetry for the Past Century

Daniel Hautzinger
The Poetry Foundation library in Chicago. Photo: Sam Grant
The publicly accessible Poetry Foundation library houses all sorts of rare books and more than 30,000 volumes. Photo: Sam Grant

For all its celebrated gruffness, Chicago is widely associated with poetry. After all, “Chicago” is a poem, one that defined that proud roughness: “Hog Butcher to the World,” “City of the Big Shoulders.” Then there’s the radical poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, chronicling A Street in Bronzeville and winning the first Pulitzer Prize for a black author. More recently, the city has been a hub of slam poetry—Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods, and Malcolm London are all alumni of the youth poetry festival Louder Than a Bomb—and rap—Kanye West, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Saba, and Noname all grew up in Chicagoland.

And then there’s Poetry magazine, and the foundation that grew out of it. Founded in Chicago in 1912 by the poet Harriet Monroe, Poetry has published most major poets of the last century, helped bring modernism to the forefront, and given early breaks to everyone from John Ashberry to Gwendolyn Brooks, Ocean Vuong to Danez Smith. Monroe published T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” before most people knew who Eliot was, while Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” e.e. Cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” and excerpts from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen were first published in its pages. “The histories of modern poetry in America and of Poetry in America are almost interchangeable, certainly inseparable,” the poet A.R. Ammons once said.

Not that Poetry focused only on America: Ezra Pound served as a foreign correspondent in Europe from the very beginning, and the magazine published, and still publishes, work in translation. In its first year of existence, it published the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Harriet Monroe had a pioneering vision that could only happen in Chicago,” says Don Share, the current editor of Poetry. "Other cities had literary coteries, and sometimes magazines, but they never lasted long. In Chicago, you had to invent everything, to build it from the ground up—and Harriet built something that was going to last, just like the great buildings downtown.”

Harriet Monroe. Photo: Courtesy of the Poetry FoundationHarriet Monroe, the founder of 'Poetry' magazine, had a knack for identifying talent and garnering financial support. Photo: Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Monroe was in her fifties when she decided to start Poetry, having already made a career writing about architecture (her brother-in-law was Daniel Burnham’s partner John Wellborn Root), for newspapers, and penning her own poems—she was commissioned to write a “Columbian Ode” for the opening of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

“There was a sense of modernity in Chicago in 1912,” says Share. “Harriet looked around the cultural landscape and saw theater, opera, dance, and widespread support for the arts, so she wanted a home for modern poetry. She wanted to create a venue that would sit along these other places, and be a place where poets could be paid for their work. Contemporary poetry was not taught, so the only way to find out about new developments was to read about it.”

It was a good time for literature in Chicago. Two other prominent periodicals were headquartered in the city: The Dial, which had begun as a Transcendentalist journal but eventually moved to Chicago; and The Little Review, which notably serialized James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It’s a tribute to the quirkiness of Harriet’s vision that those magazines didn’t last while Poetry did,” Share says. “She was really good at garnering support and moving in the elite and prosperous circles of the city.”

She also had a knack for identifying literary talent and befriending poets. Writers such as Langston Hughes gifted her their work: there is a copy of Hughes’s The Dream Keeper and Other Poems inscribed to Monroe in the library of the Poetry Foundation, under whose auspices Poetry is now published. “It’s a very beautiful book, and seeing his handwriting and gratitude is really moving,” says Katherine Litwin, the Foundation’s library director and exhibitions co-curator.

The Poetry Foundation was established in 2003, upon the receipt of a large gift from the reclusive Indianapolis philanthropist Ruth Lilly, a great-grandchild of the founder of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company. In 2011, the Foundation’s current headquarters opened at 61 W. Superior Street in the Loop. The airy modern building includes the publicly accessible library, which houses more than 30,000 volumes of poetry, biographies, critical books, and more, including rare books such as limited editions or books inscribed to various editors of the magazine through the years. In addition to Hughes’s The Dream Keeper, Litwin particularly treasures a copy of Monroe’s “Columbian Ode” and an unusual chapbook called Poem Counterpoem published by Detroit’s Broadside Press, in which Margaret Danner and Dudley Randall wrote poems on the same topic on opposing pages—Danner was also an assistant editor at Poetry.

A copy of Langston Hughes's 'The Dream Keeper' with an inscription to Harriet Monroe. Photo: Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation The Poetry Foundation library includes such highlights as a copy of Langston Hughes's 'The Dream Keeper' inscribed to Harriet Monroe. Photo: Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Share is Poetry’s eleventh editor (not including a period of group editorship in the 1940s), and has served in the role since 2013. He came to the magazine in 2007 as a senior editor, but, like most other American poets, had also submitted poems long before then. “I got rejections all the time, but when I was published, it was like the most important thing to ever happen to me,” he says. “I felt I had arrived. It’s almost like having a painting or sculpture at the Museum of Contemporary Art, or a theater piece performed at Steppenwolf.”

In 2008, he started a podcast about poetry with the magazine’s then-editor, Christian Wiman. “We would talk about what we were doing while editing the magazine, and thought, ‘People might like to hear this.’ Everybody looks at poetry and scratches their heads—and we do, too!” Twelve years later, the podcast has won several awards, including a National Magazine Award. “We just talk about poetry the way other people might talk about cooking, sports, movies—what they love to do.”

That’s a driving ethos in Share’s editorship, to keep things exciting and, if not accessible, at least enthusiastically attractive. “We want the magazine to be as important and valuable and fresh as it was when it started,” he says. “It has to be something that people want to pick up every month or engage with online. We want to put the best poetry in front of the widest possible audience, and we want to be ahead of the curve. I can look at a 1912 issue of the magazine and see Ezra Pound, or T.S. Eliot in 1915. A hundred years from now, I want people to see issues made in 2020 and see, ‘What was it like during the pandemic, during the turbulent political situation?’ You’ll find out what it was really like in poetry.

“We’re not just reaching a contemporary audience but reaching into the future, so we want to make something that will hold up and still be read. When “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published, the number of readers who would have seen it in the magazine was in the hundreds. Now, untold millions of people have read that poem.”