From rhymes to riches: Poetry's sudden gift

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JOSEPH PARISI has one thing on his mind today: getting the January issue of Poetry Magazine proofed and sent to the printer in Pennsylvania.

It's already a few days late. But Mr. Parisi, editor of the prestigious 90-year-old journal, keeps getting interrupted by reporters. Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, has just given the magazine an estimated $100 million - one of the largest gifts ever to an American arts organization.

Parisi understands this is big news. Poetry has long been the art world's poor cousin, and $10,000,000 - the first installment - would keep the magazine afloat for 20 years. The bequest, which could swell to $150 million depending upon the value of Eli Lilly stock, could buy the Minnesota Twins. In the poetry world, a gift of this size is as unlikely as the US Army delivering all orders in iambic pentameter.

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In his weaker moments, Parisi might say that rarity is a good thing. "This is a terrible burden," he says. "People don't realize the responsibility." The jeans-clad editor certainly didn't realize what he was in for when he announced the gift last Friday at the journal's 90th-anniversary celebration. Since then, his phone has not stopped ringing.

The attention is a bit overwhelming: Parisi likens the magazine's plight to that of the martyred little red hen, who could find no help in raising the wheat, but plenty of volunteers to eat it.

As the day wears on, messages continue to stack up on his desk, which is covered with poetry books and submissions. Nuisance calls stack up, too: investors who want to help him manage the new money; real estate agents offering beautiful new digs; poets asking if Parisi will share the wealth with them - now.

The answer to that last question is no. One immediate goal is to set up a foundation, as required by the IRS. Another is to find Poetry a larger, more permanent home. For the last 15 years, the magazine has enjoyed free rent of two rooms and what the staff calls a "walk-in closet" in the annex of Chicago's Newberry Library - a nondescript place where bleak earth tones are broken only by brightly colored spines of books and a single window looking out onto stone buildings, sky, and a strip of grass.

The arrangement has kept the operation afloat during times when Poetry had "just a hundred dollars in the till," according to senior editor Stephen Young. But every inch of shelf space is filled with poetry collections or past issues of the magazine, and the four-member staff is awash in books and paper. The book collection is so large - 25,000 to 30,000 titles - that much of it must be kept in the basement, two stories down. Papers heap and spill across a wide laminate table in the center of the room. Nine large boxes hold submissions from the last three months, and three postal bins overflow with new arrivals: The publication gets 90,000 submissions annually.

That number is expected to jump, as is circulation. In the past week, the four-member staff has processed 165 new subscriptions. Not bad, considering that total circulation is 10,000.

But as with most things in the literary world, numbers don't tell the whole story. Poetry is one of the most respected journals in the US, and since its beginning in 1912, it has introduced many now-classic modern poets, including Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. T.S. Eliot first published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" on Poetry's pages. Ezra Pound's famous Imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro" debuted here as well.

A library, a school, and books

Parisi hopes Lilly's gift will allow Poetry, the oldest continuous monthly devoted to verse, to continue breaking new ground. He already has some big ideas in mind, given that he'll no longer spend half his time fundraising.

He'll devote the next year to planning with Mr. Young and Deborah Cummins, president of the Modern Poetry Association, which publishes Poetry.

First, says Cummins, Poetry wants to create a library for serious scholars and the public, with a collection that would rival universities. Second, the new foundation plans to start a teachers' institute. The pilot program would invite select middle- and high-school teachers to "a total immersion experience" in Chicago, where master poets would introduce them to modern poetry. Eventually, poets could take the program across the US.

The third goal is to publish more books through Poetry's imprint, Poetry Press, including textbooks, work by emerging writers, and reprints of overlooked collections.

It is, indeed, an ambitious plan: Poetry's national outreach would be unprecedented, suddenly wielding as much influence as the venerable Academy of American Poets and the Geraldine R. Dodge poetry program, both of which were started with generous financial gifts.

Tree Swenson, the executive director of the Academy, says, "Whatever they do with the resources, this is a very happy day for anyone who loves poetry.... [The magazine] has the means to become the major national presenter of poetry." This would be good, she says, "because their mission is a very sound mission."

Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate of the United States, agrees. "A large amount of money represents a considerable power for good, if it is used with wisdom and imagination. For drawing on those vital qualities, Poetry and its supporting organization have deep historical roots."

Still, the wealth won't lead to unprecedented spending. "We won't go out with buckets of money and give it away," says Cummins. Parisi, who prides himself on frugality, agrees.

Nurturing tradition

What Poetry will do, however, is continue its tradition of nurturing poetry and poets. Each year, Parisi sends personal letters to hundreds of writers whose work is good, but not quite up to the magazine's standards. Such attention from a poetry editor is rare, but it's an important reason why Ruth Lilly - who endowed an annual Poetry prize in 1986 and sponsors two fellowships - became such a fan. She never received an acceptance when she submitted to Poetry more than 20 years ago. But Parisi's generosity - and his uncompromising standards - have obviously paid off.

As Billy Collins, the current US poet laureate says, Poetry is "clearly the apple of her philanthropic eye," and he's delighted by the media frenzy: "It isn't often that poetry gets onto the front page." He interprets the attention to mean that "poetry is moving from the margins of the culture to a more central place" - though many of the 1,700 US publications that print poetry still have a circulation of about 1,000.

But poetry's staff isn't thinking about the larger picture just now. Instead, they're gathering around a radio because a local NPR station is supposed to air a segment on a book published by Poetry Press, "Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters." The story turns out to be about religion.

Across the US, "the little magazine that could," as Collins calls it, continues to land on the front pages of major dailies. In fact, Chicago seems to be the only city not swept up in the hubbub. The story broke in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday; by now, patrons of Einstein Brothers Bagels, blocks from the Newberry Library, are dismissive: "that was news days ago." Today's big stories, according to a cabby, are the scandal with Michael Jordan's former lover and a lights festival on the Magnificent Mile.

Even Chicago poets have begun voicing qualms. Karen Volkman is poet in residence at the University of Chicago. "It certainly is a wonderful thing for Poetry magazine," she says, "but I don't see how that is synonymous with being good for poetry."

She believes the journal has become too mainstream and is now irrelavant in many circles. "Such a gift could have done far more for poetry if divided among a number of journals and small presses, especially those of an experimental aesthetic, which have a harder time finding support, or to support younger poets working on a first or second book."

But poets elsewhere disagree. Diana Der-Hovanessian is president of the New England Poetry Club, the oldest public-reading series in the country. She says that all of Boston is raving about the bequest. And she admits to feeling a good bit of envy. The amount, she says, is "beyond my ken. A million sounds like enough. Why can't we [NEPC] get even a small grant?"

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