After all these years Miss Monroe has at last told the truth concerning what ingredients go into the making of poets and their art.
1 PART GIN
1 PART CANNED GRAPEFRUIT JUICE
Ice and Serve
-from So Red the Nose
It’s good. I mean, it’s a little boring as cocktails go. Especially considering this was made by a poet, I would hope for something a little more creative. Grapefruit juice just doesn’t conjure up the kind of bombast you’d expect from an author who repeatedly calls upon “the muse” without irony. This drink isn’t dramatic or passionate; it’s more — what’s the word — laid-back.
Still, it’s not like I can recommend that you not drink gin and juice. And grapefruit is a magnificent fruit; I won’t hear one word otherwise. Acidic fruits in general seem to be the best gin-deliverers; pineapple juice is also an awesome mixer. This particular cocktail makes a perfect drinking-game concoction, which you’ll need for every time a poet in this book “cries out” their verses.
It takes a poet to interpret a poet.
-From Poets and their Art
During one of the many times my mind wandered while reading Poets and their Art, I had an epiphany: I may be good at teaching English, but I’m not good at being an English teacher.
English teacher is not just a job; it’s an identity. The words “English teacher” are filled with emotional and cultural baggage. The stereotypical English teacher is always primly judging passing acquaintances on their grammar, never deigns to use spell-check, and, before going to bed at 9 o’clock, spends her evenings sipping dry red wine while silently reading a book of poetry.
But to these assumptions I always answer D None of the Above. Don’t get me wrong — I like poetry. But I don’t read it, not really. I mean, does anyone? Of course, everyone has read a poem or two before. Many even have a favorite poem or poet, but only because they were forced to participate in a poetry unit at some point in their K12 education. I have yet to have anyone ask if I’ve read ThatHotNewBestsellingBookofPoetry. In fact, I can’t even think of a time I’ve seen a fictional character read poetry outside of a classroom. Poetry is just not a part of popular culture these days.
But it was in 1912. Or at least, it it was enough so that this week’s author, Harriet Monroe, could successfully start a magazine devoted to the genre. And the early 20th century was an exciting time in poetry’s history. Poets were shaking of the dust of the old, restrictive forms and tentatively starting to experiment with free-verse and more literal imagery. As founder/editor of Poetry magazine, Monroe was able to support and publish many of the poets that you read in school. So, you know. You can thank her for that.
Poets and their Art, then, is Monroe’s 1926 compilation of her own favorite magazine essays from the past 14 years of editing. The essays are divided into four parts: highly opinionated sketches of “Poets of Today” and “Certain Poets of Yesterday,” “Comments and Queries” about the art of poetry in a general sense, and an eye-wateringly-boring section on “Poetic Rhythms.”
I can’t really fault Monroe for the book being a bit boring through. It’s an academic work and not really meant to be read cover to cover. In fact, my copy was a university discard, and I got as much enjoyment out of reading undergrad margin notes decades older than myself than from anything Monroe had written.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
Although most the names are not immediately familiar, the critical essays are all regarding poets who are still considered relevant today, as measured by whether a Wikipedia page about them exists. However, Monroe offers surprisingly little insight into what it was like working with those famous names during their actual lifetime. In fact, these snappy little essays don’t actually read that differently than the Wikipedia entries, except with the occasional criticism thrown in. I was surprised how vicious Monroe could be toward her own friends and colleagues, but, unfortunately, surprised isn’t the same as entertained — Poets Behaving Badly this was not.
The only part of the book that really offers any value to the modern reader is that middle section, in which Monroe pontificates on how various topics relate to the poet’s art form. Here is a sampling:
In admitting, for example, as any frank observer is compelled to, that clothes are the only form artistic self-expression of which nine-tenths of our young girls are keenly aware, is to draw up an indictment against their parents and teachers, and the whole system which has brought them up to such sterility of the imagination. Joy in clothes is better than no creative joys at all, but why shouldn’t these girls have been led to sing, dance, rhyme, carve, make toys or furniture, textiles or garments, or even delicious dishes– to create something of their own?
For poets have made more wars than kings, and war will not cease until they remove its glamour from the imaginations of men.
[War] must end if the white race is to preserve its numbers, its supremacy, its creative energy and power, and the proud fabrics of it civilization.
Ok, ok, I’ll save the casual racism rant for next time. She doesn’t really talk about race beyond that one line anyway.
Considering that they supposedly spent their time brooding, many of Monroe’s poets came to shockingly violent ends (shipwreck, murder, suicide, suicide), so maybe it’s for best that poetry has fallen to the bottom of my literary priorities. Still, while this is one of the SRTN books I recommend the least, it is actually one of the ones I appreciated the most. I was not only exposed to some interesting ideas like the ones above, but, even better, to dozens of truly amazing poets that I’d never heard of before. So, in honor of Harriet Monroe and her lyrical world, I follow her in spirit by ending this critical essay with a poem.
I ‘d watched the hills drink the last colour of light,
All shapes grow bright and wane on the pale air,
Till down the traitorous east there came the night
And swept the circle of my seeing bare;
Its intimate beauty like a wanton’s veil
Tore from the void as from an empty face.
I felt at being’s rim all being fail,
And my one body pitted against space.
O heart more frightened than a wild bird’s wings
Beating at green, now is no fiery mark
Left on the quiet nothingness of things.
Be self no more against the flooding dark;
There thousandwise, sown in that cloudy blot,
Stars that are worlds look out and see you not.
-By Leonie Adams
Next time: Just in time for Thanksgiving, a Navajo love story set in 1915. I’m sure it will be nothing but respectful.
Yes, I know there were no Navajos at the first Thanksgiving.