The true value of a poem

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From its beginning, Poetry magazine was run on a shoestring. In 1914, founding editor Harriet Monroe sent poet Amy Lowell $100 for some poems but asked Lowell if she could find it in her heart to send the check back. A member of the famous Boston family, Amy was the cousin of poet James Russell Lowell and the sister of the president of Harvard, and she could have easily returned the check. But she didn't, claiming she was "a little stuck" that month. So the ever-resourceful Monroe did what she always did, cutting here, trimming there to keep the magazine going. Even today, Poetry has a staff of just four members and is run out of cramped quarters on the second floor of a Chicago library.

But all that's about to change, thanks to another member of another famous family who's a little freer with her money. Last week, it was announced that Ruth Lilly, an heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, would make a bequest to Poetry that is likely to amount to more than $100 million.

This won't be the first time Poetry has received money from Ruth Lilly. In the 1970s, she submitted some of her own poems to the magazine, but editor Joseph Parisi turned them down. She wasn't one to take rejection personally, though, because in the '80s, she endowed two fellowships for young poets as well as a prize now worth $100,000. It's not unusual for benefactors to donate modest amounts at first to see how institutions handle the money. Evidently Poetry passed the test, which is why Mr. Parisi got a call last month from a Lilly estate representative who told him, in effect, to make sure he was sitting down, because a lot of wealth was headed his way.

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The words "poetry" and "money" seldom occur in the same sentence. Poets are expected to be poor: It makes about as much sense to say "that big idiot Albert Einstein" as it does "multimillionaire Emily Dickinson." After all, the poet of most people's stereotype is Rodolfo of Puccini's "La Bohème," who burns his manuscript in the opening scene to warm his garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Yet obviously poets have managed to make ends meet over the ages. You teach, you win prizes, you get grants - you even make a little money from the books you publish, though I've made a lot more by reviewing other poets' books than from collecting royalties from mine. But the real wealth in poetry isn't monetary. People who question the value of poetry need to consider this: Why have there always been poets? Since the dawn of history, every culture has had poets; why do people write and read poetry if it isn't hugely rewarding?

Of poetry's many rewards, the greatest is freedom to say whatever you want. W. H. Auden pointed out that, precisely because poetry is so ill-paid, the poet can do pretty much as he or she pleases, because there's no possibility of selling out.

That's why I get the feeling sometimes that my novelist colleagues are looking at me with a faint air of pity. After all, their novels might be optioned by Hollywood, and as everybody knows, you get paid when a studio buys the rights to your book even if it's never turned into a movie. I, on the other hand, will be fortunate if someone pays me enough for my latest poem that I can take my wife out to dinner at a place where I won't be asked if I want fries with my order.

Why write poetry at all, then? The answer is that there are lots of different kinds of wealth, and money is just one of them. When we think of Homer and Virgil and Dante, we think of laurel leaves, not gold (that's Midas's department). I consider myself a rich man, even if I don't have a huge bank account.

So am I worried that Poetry magazine has just gone from being a postage stamp-sized operation to a mighty empire? Not a bit. I'm rubbing my hands together gleefully, because it looks as though the Lilly bequest is going to go to poetry, not poets. After editor Parisi gets some expert financial advice, he says he plans to move the magazine to more spacious quarters, expand its staff, and start new programs, including one to show high school teachers how to introduce students to the pleasures of poetry.

But even if some money ends up in poets' pockets, I'm not worried about anyone being corrupted. Poets know the real money is in the poems. What else would we conclude? We've been writing for nothing too long to think otherwise.

Poet David Kirby is teaching this term at the Florida State University Study Centre in London. His latest collection of poems is 'The House of Blue Light.'

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