“The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better.” — Harriet Monroe

“I started in early with Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, with Dickens and Thackeray; and always the book-lined library gave me a friendly assurance of companionship with lively and interesting people, gave me friends of the spirit to ease my loneliness.” – Harriet Monroe, A Poet’s Life: Seventy Years in a Changing World

It’s Harriet Monroe’s birthday today. She was the founder of Poetry magazine in 1912. Before that, she was a struggling poet, a lover of poetry, frustrated, and that frustration led to her starting up her magazine. Right off the bat, she had a mission. She would create a place open to new voices, experimental voices, poets who could not get published in legacy magazines. To say she succeeded would be an understatement. She is one of the most influential people in 20th century literature. She was the first to publish T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”. Poetry magazine was the first to publish D.H. Lawrence. She was drawn to the new, the bold and radical. She was uninterested in consensus thinking, and had no allegiance to poetic established norms. The Objectivist and Imagist movements – stark breakaways from Victorian-language embellishments – were allowed to flourish because Poetry published the works of these poets. People like H.D. (Ezra Pound sent H.D.’s first poems to Harriet Monroe, who published them. Monroe was constantly harangued by Ezra Pound to check out this or that new voice.) The more established magazines mocked Poetry as a rag devoted to untalented misfits. But Poetry is still going strong today.

In the 2nd edition, Monroe printed the policy of Poetry:

Open Door will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!

Other poets found homes in her magazine, when they weren’t able to get published elsewhere: Robert Frost. Wallace Stevens. Ezra Pound. Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. Poetry published the early works of the aforementioned H.D., Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore. They were the first to publish Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and John Ashbery. I mean, come on. These people basically created modern literature.

Monroe supported James Joyce financially. The man took 17 years between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He needed the money. She helped keep Joyce afloat. If it took him 17 years fussing over commas to publish again, so be it.

If you read any biography of any major (or even minor) literary figure from the teens of the 20th century into the next 40 years, Harriet Monroe’s name will come up.

In 1933, she got a polite shy note from a kid in Missouri:

“Will you do a total stranger the kindness of reading his verse?
Thank you!
Thomas Lanier Williams”

It took “Thomas” 4 more years of submissions before Monroe published 2 of his poems. She – like the Group Theatre who awarded one of his early plays a special prize – recognized his gift and recognized it early. Almost 15 years later, he would use similar wording in a play which would become a massive game-changing hit: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Monroe was the first to publish the difficult and often baffling (at least at the time, and probably still) work of William Carlos Williams (but could Monroe have foreseen that 100 years later Williams’ poem about eating plums would become a meme on this strange thing called Twitter? Or that Jim Jarmusch would make a whole movie inspired by Williams?)

Years later, William Carlos Williams reviewed A Poet’s Life, Harriet Monroe’s autobiography (published posthumously) for The New Republic. In his review he wrote:

Action is the password to the world for which Harriet Monroe most cared. She came upon the scene at a time when literature, especially poetry, was at a chronic ebb among us; by her action she brought up the tide a little. By her action others did the best of the writing but she did much of the work of establishment. Harriet Monroe had courage and loved poetry.”

“Harriet Monroe had courage and loved poetry.” – William Carlos Williams

It’s a fitting epitaph.

In a 1926 essay, Donald Davidson wrote:

[Monroe] has done American poetry a good service because she had the foresight to establish her magazine at exactly the time when it was needed, and the courage to publish writers who needed an introduction to the public. She has argued for poetry, lectured for it, and tried to stimulate respect for it.

Like Sylvia Beach, Harriet Monroe gave (often controversial) writers a place to do their thing as they saw fit. Other magazines shied away from the work of the poets listed above, the poets shaking off 19th-century forms. Harriet Monroe opened the door.

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