Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in 1912 with the aim to “print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” Now, over a hundred years since its inception, Poetry has stayed true to Monroe’s vision, following the art in whatever form it takes, lending pages to the words that need them most. Far from blindly crashing into the future, though, Poetry remembers its history. Volume 211 begins with a tribute to Richard Wilbur, who passed this past year.
Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in 1912 with the aim to “print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” Now, over a hundred years since its inception, Poetry has stayed true to Monroe’s vision, following the art in whatever form it takes, lending pages to the words that need them most. Far from blindly crashing into the future, though, Poetry remembers its history. Volume 211 begins with a tribute to Richard Wilbur, who passed this past year. His reprinted poem, “To an American Poet Just Dead,” which first appeared in the magazine in 1948, is both strong and moving:
[ . . . ] In summer sunk and stupefied
The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death.
And though they sleep the sounder since you died
It’s just as well that now you save your breath.
The first contemporary contributor, Monica Sok, opens well with “ABC for Refugees,” a poem that is outwardly playful but layered with references to an un-idyllic family dynamic obscured by cheerful birdcalls. Sok writes, “Cherub-bee-dee, cherub-bee-dum, like how my father says / Fine then! Leave! My mother shouts, Stupid! Dumb!”
“Stockholm Syndrome,” translated from the original Bosnian by John McAuliffe and its author, Igor Klikovac, kicks off with a tremendous hook:
I’d often seen the runway kissed by refugees
and bought-out hostages, an odd drunk and those
renouncing the flying for good, and thought
that surely there must be worse places to touch
It is a piece marked by a cavalcade of cultures, intriguing objects (a blackened Union Jack for curtains), a world that that can fold down inside a travel bag, and the knowledge that people came before, that one will not necessarily move forward, and that the truth may be triggered by a friendly pain.
In “Local News: Woman Dies in Chimney,” Kristen Tracy imagines the final night of a spurned lover, “fed up or drunk or undone,” desperately attempting to enter the familiar, now unwelcome, home. Garage empty, back door locked, a light on in the den, she decides the chimney is her point of entry. There she dies, “Stuck. Like a tragic Santa.” Tracy tells the story like black comedy, a tragedy sparking the incredulity of neighbors, of readers, and possibly of the poet herself. A few pages later, in her third poem, Tracy bemoans the youth claimed by vampire stories, watching as they slink around in stiff, unwashed denim, begging for the fangs that will release them, for rides to the theater where they “burst / into dollars and popcorn in their seats.”
“New Canadian Poets,” a section set in the second half of Volume 211, is a response to a 1959 Poetry review, dubbed “The Canadian Imagination.” In his introductory note, Jim Johnstone explains that the review “questioned whether the country’s poetry was ready for export to other English speaking nations.” Later, in the “Comment” section, Shane Neilson refers to the eighties and nineties as the “period when Canadian poetry took a nap.” Yet now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, both men have seen the form flourish, as evidenced by the Canadian writers featured in Poetry’s pages.
In “Contact” Dani Couture describes an uncomfortable flight, setting the scene with “Cloud cover like a badly made bed, ruched in sections, rushed,” then ceding it to the unknown yet familiar aisle-seat companion drinking vodka between beers, pawing, laying claim, making assumptions, lifting up his shirt to show the entry point to previously collapsed lungs. Couture concludes strongly with, “[H]e said he’d briefly died and now is, briefly, alive.”
In a period when the arts, especially poetry, are undervalued by so many, those who cherish creative expression and daring must latch on to the mediums they love, lending support, praising the great, and rewarding the good. There is plenty to be supportive of in this well-seasoned magazine, and for readers to savor. Savor life too, and remember Forrest Gander’s words, plucked from his poem and emblazoned on the back cover of Volume 21, Number 3: “You who were given a life, what did you make of it?”