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From rhymes to riches: Poetry's sudden gift

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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.

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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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