Annual Letter from John Barr, President
Dear Friends of Poetry,
For decades now scientists have tried without success to build a fusion reactor. The rewards are great—a limitless supply of clean energy—but the technical challenges are daunting. According to the New York Times in 1996, the plasma of hot gas must never be allowed to touch the walls of the chamber. “The least contact with any matter instantly cools the plasma and prevents it from maintaining fusion conditions.” Interesting, you may say, but what does this have to do with poetry? The task of building a machine that is hard metal on the outside but holds in its heart the very stuff of a star’s heat is not unlike building a foundation to harbor in its heart the creative power of poetry. In either case the goal is to release great amounts of energy; in either case it doesn’t take much to get it wrong.
When Ruth Lilly in 2002 bestowed a large part of her personal wealth on Poetry, it was a headline story in American culture. Less noted, then or now, is that her gift carried no restrictions or directions of any kind, a rarity in the world of major philanthropy. The trustees of the Poetry Foundation (who as publishers of Poetry were also stewards for the gift) determined that Ruth Lilly’s largesse not only would provide for the magazine in perpetuity, but also could be used for the broader benefit of the art form. Guided by the vision and writings of Poetry’s founder Harriet Monroe, they gave the Foundation a mission to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience. In those two ways they committed the Foundation to support a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.
The Foundation, with the magazine as its flagship program, proceeded to establish or sponsor additional programs in each of the venues where poetry could reach large audiences: newspapers, radio, television, live performance, and the internet. In addition the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, another of Ruth Lilly’s inspirations, was expanded into a family of prizes for under-recognized poets and kinds of poetry. The Pegasus Awards have grown to include, in addition to the Lilly Prize: the Neglected Masters Award; the Mark Twain Poetry Award for humor in American poetry; the Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism; the Verse Drama Prize; the Emily Dickinson First Book Award for a poet over the age of 40; and the biennial naming of a Children’s Poet Laureate. The Foundation also started something else that was new in poetry: a “think tank” devoted to the study of practical and intellectual issues in poetry, with a bias toward action. In contrast to academic symposia, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute convenes experts, commissions books—six of them so far—and recommends programs intended to have a discernible, beneficial effect on poetry over the long term.
As the Foundation reaches the end of its first decade—that is one of two anniversaries we celebrate in 2012—all of these initiatives are up and running. Poetryfoundation.org had 7.6 million visitors in 2011 while our mobile “apps” were downloaded more than a quarter million times. Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest, continues to grow at double-digit rates and has reached more than a million high school students and their teachers since inception. Before the Lilly gift the total outreach of the Foundation was limited to the circulation of Poetry, which was then 11,000. In the year just ended the combined programs of the Foundation placed poetry before 20 million people who would not otherwise have seen or heard it. This is a quantifiable measure of the outreach part of the Foundation’s mission, “to place poetry before the largest possible audience.”
The other part of the mission, “to discover and celebrate the best poetry,” is much more a subjective affair. This is the daily work of our editors; the moment when the poem written becomes the poem read; the moment when creative energy is released in poetry’s equivalent of the fusion reaction. It is the reason the Foundation exists. The question of what is “best” in poetry is of course never settled—and we should worry if it ever were. The endless contention that surrounds all poetry is the creative destruction out of which new poetry arises. It has filled the magazine’s reviews and letters from its founding; it fuels the poetry blogosphere with anarchic energy. Whether the editors who run Poetry and the other Foundation programs are in fact finding and celebrating “the best poetry” of Harriet Monroe’s vision will finally be decided by their readers—those today and generations hence. But impartial judgment of their work, and the work of the other programs of the Foundation, has also come from other quarters, from peer organizations outside the poetry world.
- A Webby Award for poetryfoundation.org for Best Association Website from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (2007)
- A Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program for Classical Baby (I’m Grown Up Now): The Poetry Show, in collaboration with HBO (2008)
- A second Primetime Emmy Award for the sequel, A Child’s Garden of Poetry, also in collaboration with HBO (2011)
- Two National Magazine Awards for Poetry from the American Society of Magazine Editors: for Outstanding Podcast and for General Excellence in Print (2011)
- A Patron of the Year Award for the Foundation for its new building, from the Chicago Architecture Foundation (2011)
- An Institute Honor Award for Architecture for the Foundation’s new building, from the American Institute of Architects, its highest level of design award (January 2012)
Not all of the “hard metal” that nurtures and contains the poetic energy at the Foundation is visible to the naked eye. The strategic plan, the annual forty-page operating budget, managing the endowment: Although these things may seem remote to those for whom the passion is in the poetry, they are the means by which we preserve the Lilly gift for the future while putting it to work for poetry today. Another part of our structure is happily more visible. Last June our new home for poetry opened its doors to more than a thousand visitors, and the crowds for our exhibitions and performance events have not stopped since. We hope you will visit us at the corner of Dearborn and Superior Streets in downtown Chicago, and see it for yourself.
If “it doesn’t take much to get it wrong” when constructing a foundation from scratch, that includes the building itself. It was not without soul-searching, and a year’s delay at the onset of the world financial crisis, that our Board decided that building a permanent home for Poetry—the magazine had lived at more than ten addresses over a century of nomadism—and for poetry the art form was the right thing to do. The reception the building has received, now that it’s been open for six months, seems amply to confirm that decision. Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, called the building “splendid,” and admired
its understated elegance . . . by turns mysterious, engaging, richly layered and revealing. Its resolute modernity seems destined to affirm and reinvigorate the vision of Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe: That poetry is an art that speaks to us today—not a distant, irrelevant past time.
Chicago architect John Ronan has made a building that is a metaphor for poetry itself. Its glass and metal and wood open to the visitor gradually; its blocks of space and light reveal themselves the way a poem unfolds itself, line by line. In Ronan’s building the word of poetry is made the flesh of architecture. To wander daily through this construct where the matters of poetry combine, with a release of primal energy, is not a responsibility with a job definition. It is a quiet joy.
That joy will be something to share as we celebrate our other anniversary in 2012, the centenary of Harriet Monroe’s magazine. You’ll read about it in Poetry issue by issue. You’ll hear it in the poetry spoken in our performance space, acoustically designed expressly for the human voice. You’ll see it in our library and exhibition hall, in a series of collections including never-before-seen pictures from the magazine’s archives. You’ll read about it on our website—which, incidentally, is the best way to stay apprised of scheduled events (sign up for our free e-newsletter at poetryfoundation.org/newsletter/). And in October, the month of the magazine’s inaugural appearance, we will offer something permanent for your poetry shelf: The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine. This anthology of poems from the magazine’s first century, selected by Poetry editors Christian Wiman and Don Share, will be published by the University of Chicago Press.
Harriet Monroe and Ruth Lilly were two women of the Midwest for whom poetry was a passion central to life itself. In 2012 we celebrate anniversaries of their lasting gifts. But really we thank them every day.
With best wishes,