Poetry News

Popular Poetry Was "Modern Without Being Modernistic"

By Harriet Staff


Mike Chasar, author of Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (Columbia UP), writes on his  blog Poetry & Popular Culture that he may have discovered a hitherto unknown Modernist poetry magazine. For years, he writes, he has wanted to find "a modernist-era little magazine...that might help put the world of popular poetry on the radar screens of modernist studies scholars."

After lo these many years of searching, we recently came across this single, solitary issue (Volume 1, Number 8) of Popular Poetry, issued out of Cincinnati, Ohio, in March of 1931 by the people who were at that time already bringing Writer's Digest to the world. We don't know much aboutPopular Poetry yet; an initial query to Writer's Digest revealed that current editorial staff don't know anything about it and don't have any idea whether or not there's a company archive boxed up in some warehouse somewhere that could shed some light on who started it, why, how, and what eventually came of it once the 1930s—the decade during which what Joseph Harrington called the "poetry wars" established a serious split between "high" and "low" in the world of American verse—came to a close.

According to Chasar, Popular Poetry described itself as "modern without being modernistic and mid-way between the classic and the popular." We're particularly fascinated with Chasar's description of one magazine section called "Poetry Offshoots: The Commercial Side of Verse." The section advises "rhyme with reason" and warns that "Standardization is the very last and least thing wanted in verse, but compromise with the needs of your market is desirable—if you're writing to sell."

What Rukin ultimately advises aspiring writers is what teachers still tell their students hoping to publish today: study the publications to which you're sending before you go sending your poems out. She makes her case by quoting, of all things, Tristan Tzara's Dadaist poem "Toto Vaca" and explaining that poems like it have a place in the "artistic journal, published for the sole purpose of encouraging new forms of literature" but not necessarily in the mainstream press.

We hope that Chasar is able to locate other issues of Popular Poetry, and that they are someday digitized and archived Modernist Journals Project. Until then, head over to Poetry & Popular Culture to read a few pages of the one issue in Chasar's position.