Local Lit: the original poetry slams 

"Cat piss and porcupines!" wrote Ezra Pound in a 1913 letter to Harriet Monroe. "This last is too much." Monroe, founder and editor of the new Chicago magazine Poetry, had established a $250 prize for the best work from its pages, and she wanted to award the money to the midwestern poet Vachel Lindsay. Pound, an American expatriate in London and Poetry's foreign correspondent, was lobbying for William Butler Yeats, whose poem "The Grey Rock" he'd procured for the magazine's third issue. Pound got his way eventually, but the conflict typified his volatile relationship with Monroe.

Their five-year correspondence is the centerpiece of Dear Editor, a dramatic reading of letters, interviews, and reminiscences commemorating Poetry's 85th anniversary. "I thought it would be a nice way of telling the story of the magazine from the inside," explains current editor Joseph Parisi, who assembled the script. "Not in that kind of dry, academic way, but through the personalities who created and who've been involved in it. I wanted to give people a sense of it as a living organism, a process of give-and-take between authors with their ideas and editors with their own."

Born in 1860, Harriet Monroe was the daughter of a prominent

attorney whose fortunes plummeted after the Chicago Fire; she was drawn to literature at an early age and supported herself as a freelance writer and as an art critic for the Chicago Tribune. Monroe enjoyed modest success as a poet, writing an ode for the Columbian Exposition of 1892 and publishing in the Atlantic Monthly, but she became increasingly frustrated with the commercial pressures shaping American poetry. "Poetry at that time was basically used as filler in magazines," Parisi explains, "and the majority of stuff that did appear was rather predictable, formal stuff with 'uplift' and messages and that sort of thing." In 1910 Monroe resolved to start a magazine that would both put Chicago on the literary map and treat poetry with the seriousness it deserved.

She spent the next two years collecting pledges from local benefactors, and in August 1912 she started soliciting submissions. Pound, then a 26-year-old upstart with two books of poetry to his name, responded immediately. "There is no other magazine in America which is not an insult to the serious artist and to the dignity of his art," he wrote from London. "But? Can you teach the American poet that poetry is an art? Can you teach him that it is not a pentametric echo of the sociological dogma printed in last year's magazines?" Pound contributed two poems to the magazine's first issue and submitted work from his colleagues in London; over the next few years the magazine became internationally known for championing modernists like T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.D., and Richard Aldington.

"Pound latched onto Monroe because he was always looking for outlets for his own work and also for people he was promoting," says Parisi. "So he volunteered to be her foreign editor, although he tended to exaggerate his role--actually right from the start, but increasingly as years went on. What started out very friendly became more and more strained. Harriet Monroe had taste and judgment herself and knew what she wanted and what she did not want, and Pound wanted to take it over as an organ for his own ideas and movements, particularly Imagism."

Inspired by the English philosopher and poet T.E. Hulme, Pound had begun to argue in favor of a poetry of precise imagery and cold, exacting language. His short poem "In a Station of the Metro," which appeared in Poetry in April 1913, is a classic example: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough." His bitterness toward the U.S. set him at odds with Monroe, who wanted the magazine to sustain an international reputation but also saw in her native land a vast reservoir of unrecognized talent. She was troubled by one of Pound's first contributions, which referred to Americans as "that mass of dolts," and Pound was equally exasperated when she chose to publish Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters.

"You are your own worst enemy, alas!" Monroe wrote when rejecting one of Pound's antagonistic prose pieces. "Something in you fails to realize that anyone who carries a bludgeon for friend and foe finds himself, before long, batting the empty air. My very respect for your work makes me wish you would not plant yourself so violently in front of it." Pound's imperious reply was characteristic of him: "Having spent two days in rage and depression, I shall proceed to show my innate weakness of character and forgive you your sins."

"He's very condescending," Parisi says, "as if she's this poor little creature. You have to remember that she was quite a bit older than him, so he had a lot of gall, actually. And she has amazing patience; despite the fact that quite often he irritated her and called into question her judgment and even insulted her, she always forgave him and was in fact unfailingly polite and patient. But she was made of very stern stuff, and she wasn't going to be bullied by anybody." In 1914 Pound established himself as unofficial editor of the Imagist magazine the Egoist, and his conflicts with Monroe over D.H. Lawrence, whose work she found indecent, drove them further apart; by 1917 Pound had severed his connection with Poetry.

The two never met face-to-face, but when Monroe died in 1936 Pound acknowledged her contribution to modern poetry. "The elasticity of her perceptions and the freshness of her interest were those of a great editor," he wrote, "and as no one more acrimoniously differed with her in point of view than I did, so, I think, no one is better able to testify to her unfailing sincerity, to the unfailing purity of her intentions." He always wanted the last word.

Dear Editor will be performed at 6 PM Thursday at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. It's free; for more information call 312-255-3700. --J.R. Jones

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ezra Pound; Harriet Monroe photo/ John Young Photographers.

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