By Pamela Schipper
Poetry is what speaks for us when we have no words. It’s the heart
welling at weddings and funerals and the balm in the small hours of the night.
Still. The most celebrated of verses don’t live in the limelight— not like the
day’s news, lyrics to a Lady Gaga song or a John Grisham novel. Poetry seems to
play out in the backbeat, like so many skitterings of the soul, desperately
personal and yet fundamentally universal.
Good poetry speaks the truth, or at least some version thereof,
and the real thing is hard to find. For nearly 125 years, the journal Poet
Lore has somehow recognized the verses that will resonate across time, and
its editors have nurtured both emerging and established poets. Today published
semi-annually by The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and edited by E. Ethelbert
Miller and Jody Bolz, Poet Lore is the longest continuously published
poetry journal in the United States.
It began as a literary journal in 1889. Founded in Philadelphia by
Helen A. Clarke and Charlotte Porter, who were scholars, writers and life
partners, Poet Lore was originally devoted to “Letters and the Study of
Shakespeare, Browning, and Comparative Literature.” Clarke and Porter were both
highly educated and forwardthinking Victorian women, and they sought to make
new literature—especially the international and the avant-garde— accessible to
a wider audience.
Early on, the journal concentrated on drama. Clarke dramatized
Browning’s poems and Porter specialized in French theatre and was responsible
for Poet Lore’s publication of the first American translations of many
European plays. Names in inaugural issues read like college literature class
syllabi: Tagore, Gorky, Mistral, Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov. In 1892, none
other than Walt Whitman placed an ad for Leaves of Grass.
During the First World War, Clarke and Porter maintained their
one-world approach to literature and openly published works written by authors
in enemy countries. These included translations of Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul
Fort and Paul Verlaine, as well as Georges Duhamel’s play The Combat.
For reasons unknown to the current editors of Poet Lore, Clarke and
Porter accepted a poem from F. Scott Fitzgerald in September 1917 but never
published it. Entitled “The Way of Purgation,” this was Fitzgerald’s first
piece accepted for publication. It was finally published in the Winter
1989–1990 issue of Poet Lore.
“The Way of Purgation”
A fathom deep in sleep I lie
With old desires, restrained before;
To clamor life-ward with a cry
As dark flies out the greying door.
And so in quest of creeds to share
I seek assertive day again;
But old monotony is there—
Long, long avenues of rain.
Oh might I rise again! Might I
Throw off the throbs of that old wine—
See the new morning mass the sky
With fairy towers, line on line—
Find each mirage in the high air
A symbol, not a dream again!
But old monotony is there—
Long, long avenues of rain.
— by F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Published in Poet Lore,
Volume 84, Number 4
Time has attested to the talent of Poet Lore’s founding
editors, but they themselves were humble about their calling. “The mystery of
beauty there is no gainsaying,” wrote Clarke and Porter in 1889. “The heart of
it cannot be plucked out by any editor or commentator. The approach to it,
however, like that to any other mystery … is a path one may search for as well
as chance upon.”
Through the years, the journal has changed—focusing more on poetry
than drama—but its pursuit of the “mystery of beauty” and its dedication to
giving voice to the new and timeless remains unwavering. “Discerning the
difference between fashion and authenticity is the challenge we face as editors
today—a challenge we’re unlikely to meet, being creatures of our own time and
place as poets and as critics,” write today’s Executive Editors Jody Bolz and
E. Ethelbert Miller. “Still, we read submissions each week in search of
language that stops us in our tracks—poems that aren’t merely of our time but
might actually illuminate and outlast it.”
Award-winning poets themselves, Bolz and Miller consider
submissions, as long as they’re on paper. “We don’t take electronic
submissions,” says Genevieve DeLeon, Poet Lore managing editor. “They
(Bolz and Miller) read every single submission we get. We get hundreds per
month—a really big pile.”
“They have such an interesting dynamic, Jody and Ethelbert,”
continues DeLeon of the editors’ process. “Ethelbert’s sort of an activist.
He’s more politically-minded. A lot of his poems are very sensual and there’s a
sort of roving-ness about his aesthetic. Jody’s maybe a little more
academically-minded. She’s worked as an editor so she has hawk’s eyes. She’ll
pick up on the valences of certain words and how they’ll work in the narrative
of the publication.”
“The most rewarding thing about reading so many poems as an
editor—week after week, year after year—is that you begin to hear (or to think
you hear) the voice of our moment,” says Bolz in an interview at The Writer’s
Center. “You start to discern the difference between what’s expectable and
what’s entirely original, what’s in vogue and what’s authentic, surprising,
even unsettling. After spending hours poring over poems that seem formulaic or
flat or too consciously clever, you suddenly come upon language that stops you
in your tracks, that’s inexplicably arresting.”
Published by The Writer’s Center since 1989, Poet Lore has
featured the work of contemporary luminaries like Roland Flint, Carolyn Forché,
Pablo Medina, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Terrance Hayes, Linda Pastan and others.
In 2003, the journal affirmed its commitment to the new with “Poets Introducing
Poets.” In this section, an established poet introduces an emerging one and a
collection of work by the new poet is showcased.
With a community of poets nurturing verse on its pages and
talented editors, Poet Lore is poised for another century of finding and
giving voice to the real thing.
Published in the January/February 2012 issue of Montgomery Magazine.