2004 Annual Letter: The Year in Review

The Poetry Foundation, September 2004

By John Barr

The convergence of something of real value from the literary world and something of real value from the financial world has brought out the alchemist in us all. When poetry and money, two elements known for being unknown to one another, are brought together for the first time, will the combination produce gold? Or gunpowder? Or merely a brown sludge?

The news media have correctly recognized that Ruth Lilly's gift, in excess of $100 million, to Poetry magazine, an old and distinguished journal but also a small one, is probably without precedent in the history of literature. Their questions have echoed the questions of those in the poetry world who hope—or fear—that they will be affected by the arrival of this endowment. "What is the Foundation going to do with all that money?" "With all the misery and need in the world, how can you justify spending it on a marginal cause like poetry?" "What are you going to do for education? For the libraries?" "Will you give grants to individual poets?" "Have other poetry organizations been threatened by your good fortune?"

Until now the Poetry Foundation, which is charged with mixing these unpredictable ingredients, has been constrained in its answers. Our strategic plan, still under development, was not yet ready for a detailed discussion. In addition, space limitations in the media do not accommodate a nuanced discussion of what the Foundation is going to do and why.

The first of these constraints changed in June, when the board of the Poetry Foundation gave its unanimous approval to the plan that will guide our actions going forward. This letter addresses the second constraint. It lays out the main elements of the strategic plan along with the thinking behind it.

The threshold question, the one we must get up in the morning and ask ourselves in the mirror, is "What are poetry's real needs?" Unlike opera (or ballet or the theater), poetry does not require new concert halls or lavish productions. The only equipment a poet needs is a pencil and some paper. In economic terms poetry is, at its point of origin, not a capital-intensive business—nor is it a business at all. Poetry arises out of the need to engage life in some primary way, to deal with the world which is given to us and to which we are given. Over its long history it has been all things to all people, and has occurred at all times and in all places. We can expect that poetry will continue to arise from the human condition, with or without the benefit of Ruth Lilly's magnificent gift.

What poetry really needs, according to some, is not more writers but more readers. It's hard to agree with the first part of this statement (how could we have too many good poets?), but the truth of the second seems self-evident. Over the past century, poetry has survived increasingly apart from the rest of our culture. It has found sanctuary as a subject of study in the college classroom, and more recently has thrived as a craft to be studied in the MFA program and the poetry workshop. But for all this awareness of itself by itself, contemporary poetry can hardly be said to be much on the mind of the general public. The wonder is that so much poetry continues to be written in the face of such resolute indifference.

No one knows if poetry will have a Golden Age ahead of it anytime soon, but it's hard to imagine one without an audience. If you look at drama in Shakespeare's day (or the novel in the 20th century or the movie today), it suggests that an art enters its Golden Age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audience of its time. It's when there is no audience (beyond each other) that artists talk about "art for art's sake." It's when there is no one else to write for that poets write "for the ages."

An awareness of this fact led our board, in its mission statement, to commit the Poetry Foundation to pursuing "a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture." "To have great poets, there must be great audiences too," Whitman said, and then he wrote for them. Poetry ran that as a legend on its cover for many years. In the same spirit, the Foundation will seek to discover and celebrate the best poetry, and to place it before the largest possible audience.

Through its programs and projects, the Foundation will work to raise poetry to a more visible and influential position in American culture. Rather than celebrating the status quo, these initiatives will encourage new kinds of poetry and expand the universe of readers for all poetry. Our goal is to alter the perception that poetry is a marginal art by making it more directly relevant to the American experience.

As a starting point in this work, the Foundation will commission a large-scale national research study on the state of poetry in America. It will seek to replace the usual anecdotal knowledge of poetry's presence in American life with a factual survey of attitudes about poetry, where it is encountered, what kinds of poetry are heard and read, and how it is used. The results will be published and will be made broadly available.

Poetry, which is the Foundation's literary heritage and the source of its stature in the poetry world, will continue to be the flagship of the Foundation's activities. Under its editor, Christian Wiman, the magazine will continue as it has for almost a century to discover the best new poetry both by distinguished and by less-known writers. In addition, it will present criticism of an order once present in American poetry but less evident today, and will address current issues relating to poetry in our culture.

If one thinks of Poetry as the Foundation's primary venue in the printed word, then a companion initiative will occur in the electronic word. The Foundation will create a major website for contemporary poetry. There is much poetry on the Internet, of course, but of very mixed quality. Our web initiative will establish a generous database of the best contemporary poetry, with search engines making it accessible to users from children to seniors, from casual readers to serious students of poetry. Through links and affiliations, our site will supplement rather than replace those poetry sites already doing excellent work on the web.

Speaking of children, our initiatives in education include a multipronged plan to place good poetry before children and young adults. We expect to collaborate in a joint venture that will test a program of recitation in the schools. Teenage students will have the opportunity to memorize and perform poems, both traditional and contemporary, in a sponsored competition similar to a spelling bee, with winners moving from regional to national finals. Separately, the Foundation will study the needs of teachers and school libraries, with a view to expanding the teaching of poetry in schools. After a study phase, resource materials will be created and placed on the Foundation's website as the initial distribution vehicle. Finally, the Foundation has an interest in placing poetry before the very young. Through co-ventures we hope to develop the best interactive poetry resources, learning tools, and games for young children.

One way to expand the presence of good poetry in our culture is to place more of it in the mainstream media. The Foundation will establish an in-house program for promoting "Poetry in the Media." Through active relationships with editors in print and electronic media, we hope to see poetry published, cited, and discussed more commonly in newspapers, general and special interest magazines, radio, television, and film.

Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize has ranked among the major poetry awards in this country. With the new endowment, it becomes possible to build on this and our other awards—but to do so with a difference. Over the next few years, the Foundation will inaugurate a series of new awards to poets and to types of poetry that have been previously under-recognized. These will include a "Neglected Masters Award" for a significant American poet whose work is at risk of being lost to the reading public; a first-book award for a poet over the age of 50; and a "Mark Twain Award" recognizing a poet's contribution to humor in American poetry. The latter will be given in the belief that humorous poetry can also be seriously good poetry, and in the hope that American poetry will in time produce its own Mark Twain.

This overview of our strategic plan has so far addressed what the Foundation will be doing, and why. But of equal interest to fellow members of the poetry community is what the Foundation will not be doing, and why. The Poetry Foundation will not, for example, distribute the entire corpus of the Lilly gift at one time, shotgunning it to the far corners of the poetry world. The endowment, under professional investment management, is expected to generate income in perpetuity. That income will give the Foundation's programs a staying power rarely found in the arts world, and a capacity to support poetry for a very long time. Nor will the Foundation be primarily a grant-making or check-writing organization. As an operating Foundation, it will inaugurate and manage its own programs. This does not, however, preclude partnerships or joint ventures with other organizations already providing a necessary service to poetry. The last thing our staff believes is that the Foundation has all the answers.

Our starting point in this plan has been to identify the greatest unmet needs of poetry and then to devise programs to address those needs. Some types of activity are already thriving (poetry readings and MFA programs come to mind) and hardly need our help. Others, worthy but smaller projects, may not receive Foundation support because of our decision to concentrate on those projects having the scope to do the most good for poetry. "But poets need money," some have said, and argued for programs that will put money directly into the pockets of poets. Another way to achieve that end, in our view, is through programs that will discover, celebrate, and disseminate the best poetry. By growing the universe of readers who will buy books of poetry, the Foundation hopes to bring economic as well as artistic life to the business of writing poetry.

Finally, we want the Foundation to be a good member of the communities to which it belongs. Those include the city of Chicago, home to Poetry magazine since its founding by Harriet Monroe in 1912. They include the community of other foundations and tax-exempt supporters of the arts, where the Poetry Foundation will seek to be a resource on poetry in America. And they include our fellow members of the poetry community, to whom this letter is addressed.

One way to test the adequacy of our vision for the Poetry Foundation is to imagine what might be called "the legacy interview." Three years from now, or five, a journalist visits the Foundation and says, "You have now sat with a large amount of money for a long time. How is poetry in America better off because of that?" Each of our initiatives has been crafted with an answer to that question in mind. If the website, the education initiatives, and our other programs achieve their respective goals, we will be able to attest with measured facts to the enhanced presence of poetry in America. But if we succeed, there will be another answer that goes beyond quantifying. Poetry in this country will be written differently, and better, because the art will have drawn fresh energy from throngs of readers who have discovered a craving for the deep sustenance that poetry provides. Poetry may even find itself (dare we say it?) on the verge of a Golden Age.

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