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Essay

From the Archive: Wallace Stevens's Poetic Drama

In October 1915, Poetry put forth an impassioned commentary on the state of contemporary poetic drama. Alice Corbin Henderson's indictment of the "present meager fare" of the genre ended with a "hopeful prophecy" in the form of a special request for submissions to the magazine. Poetry was offering a one hundred dollar cash prize, donated by the Players' Producing Company of Chicago, and publication in the magazine to the poet who could pen a play script under the following criteria: that it be in metrical verse or vers libre, American in subject or substance, and actable.

Over the course of the next four months, nearly one hundred scripts found their way to Poetry's offices. The selection committee whittled them down to six finalists, among which was a piece by the still relatively unknown Wallace Stevens, whose first literary publication had been in Poetry just two years earlier.

The prize announcement, made in June 1916, hedged a bit, declaring: "none of the submitted plays unites under a single title our own conditions of poetic beauty, actability, and a subject either American or of modern significance through life unlocalized.'" Still, Steven's "Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise," stood out to all but one of the judges as "a strange and fantastic work of original genius . . . however diverting or repelling its story." Indeed, reading selections from the play today, one recoils at some of the racial and social attitudes it seems to promote. The prize itself was never awarded again, and the appearance of verse dramas in Poetry from that time on has been few and far between.

With this month's announcement by the Poetry Foundation of its new Verse Drama Award and Richard Wilbur's translation from Pierre Corneille's Theatre of Illusion appearing in our November 2006 issue, we are eager to breathe new life into this under-recognized form. As we move forward in this new direction, we invite you to look back to July 1916 at the first (and only) winner of Poetry's one-act poetic play award—with our own hopeful prophecy of a more successful, and lasting, tradition this time around.






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