The heroes of poetry

Poetry magazine celebrates its centennial with an anthology of 100 poems from its past.

09/30/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:12 AM

“The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine,” edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman (The University of Chicago Press, 224 pages, $20)

“The histories of modern poetry in America and of Poetry [magazine] in America are almost interchangeable, certainly inseparable.”

– A.R. Ammons

Who makes history?

For the ancient Greeks, it was the hero, glorious and godlike in battle. Today, we tend to favor the rich and famous. But, really, must we revere a computer software engineer?

Let’s stick with the Greeks.

And so let us praise today’s poets the way the Athenians did Homer or Sappho. For they, too, helped build our Western civilization – not counting its shaky economy, of course.

Thus, for us, not Homer, but Pound. Ezra Pound. Let’s call him Theseus, sailing the Aegean to slay the Minotaur in the labyrinth of the prosaic. But killing the Minotaur meant less to Pound than teaching a young poet, W.S. Merwin, in 1948, at St. Elizabeth’s U.S. Government Hospital, where Pound was bound to the psychiatric ward, an alternative sentence for his conviction of treason during World War II.

So Plato was right, after all: Poetry is a kind of madness.

A century ago, a modernist aficionado named Harriet Monroe wanted to create a magazine that would publish poetry on par with the cutting-edge art and architecture of Chicago, where she lived..

She got her wish when Poetry was born: “The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine,” she wrote,” – may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!”

Today, Christian Wiman and Don Share co-edit the magazine. And after raiding Poetry’s archives, they have compiled a portrait of its first century: 100 poems by 100 poets, from the lionized to the newly laurelled.

We may admire Monroe’s Open Door policy a century later, but how to keep a pure breeze blowing through it poses a headache for any editor.

Wiman wisely sets out a few standards: Poetic form and content are inseparable; you must be ready to be surprised; modernism’s difficulties lead to unexpected clarity; and the formal decisions poets make are ethical.

Enlarge your idea of what it means to be human,” he says.

To make his points, Wiman compares two poems in the anthology, Pound’s imagist manifesto, “In a Station of the Metro,” and W.S. Di Piero’s recent “Big City Splash,” works separated by 91 years.

Their common ground? Powerful, short bursts of diction. But which is the better poem? On that we must keep the door open.

Another of Wiman’s points is poetry’s capacity to surprise. And some of the biggest surprises in “The Open Door” come from spying a familiar name – including Wichita’s own Albert Goldbarth – and seeing one of your favorite poems in a new light.

That happened to me with James Wright’s “The Blessing,” published in 1961.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

The word “break” incarnates itself: It breaks the line of verse, then leads to the break of the poet’s “blossoming” in new life.

And that may finally be the best way to watch Poetry’s Open Door swing through the 21st century. Crossing its threshold in another hundred years could be a poet just blossoming into his or her creative heroics.

It could happen to anyone in America. Or so Harriet Monroe wanted to believe.

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