Poetry’s New Home



Today. As a soft, grey rain swept clean the sleepy streets of Chicago’s early morning rhythm, the Poetry Foundation prepared for the housewarming party to its brand new home.

After almost a century of being a renter, Poetry Magazine, and the umbrella organization, The Poetry Foundation can now throw open the doors to it’s sweeping 22,000 square foot building, and say to the world, ‘We own our own home.’

Designed by Chicago architect John Ronan, the building does what poetry does, provides a place to think and speak and reflect on the world differently.

Of course, writing about Poetry is akin to dancing about architecture. There is an element of absurdity in even attempting such a thing. So one can first turn to facts. But then reciting facts about poetry can easily fade into the steady stream of background noise that populates so much of the inboxes of our souls. Like for example: The building houses a performance area, a 35,000 volume library and an exhibition gallery. Quick show of hands. How many read that last sentence and thought “So?”

Scores of words will be devoted to the money angle on this story. By last count, there were 32 poets across the world that actually had a lot of money. But the Poetry Foundation has a whole lot of money. Supplied by an heiress to the Eli Lilly drug fortune.

And finally, there’s the fact that there are a few famous poets. Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins will be here soon to headline the dedication ceremonies.

And all those facts are well and good. Fodder for the tired old arguments about all the ways that art and commerce should get along with each other.

But it’s when you leave the city rhythms and wander into the garden of Poetry’s new home that the real story starts to unfold. You’ve come early to the ceremony. Your search is for the voices that will not be giving speeches today. The spirits who have come back to see what we’ve done with the world they’ve left behind. You start listening. You listen harder then you ever imagined you could listen. And as the blurry images of poetry’s real history start to take shape on the benches in the garden that surrounds you, there is first a quiet woman pouring over some numbers on a piece of paper. Studying them intently. Harriet Monroe. Founded the magazine in 1912. Touching the tip of her pencil to her tongue. ‘If I get 100 people to dedicate $50 a year for the first 5 years . . .’ and she ends up getting 108 people.

That first issue—the one in the picture. Look at who was featured. Ezra Pound. He’s here today too. Sitting on his bench in the garden, marveling at the height of the buildings surrounding this oasis of calm and center of curiosity.

That man in the business suit, holding a small jar that he places on the bench beside him. Wallace Stevens. Poetry Magazine contributor and Vice President of Claims for Hartford Insurance. Both. And that a combination like that exists in one person is a marvel.

But the wild prairie fire soul clearing his throat on the bench behind you, Carl Sandberg, has no time for guys in suits, as he starts to sing out:

“Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I

have seen your painted women under the gas lamps

luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it

is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to

kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the

faces of women and children I have seen the marks

of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who

sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer

and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing

so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on

job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the

little soft cities . . . .”

Sandburg, interrupted then by the wild eyed Nelson Algren who had just wandered in late, looks up from the bench to his picture at the typewriter at the top of this page right here, shrugs, and cries out, “This is a home? Maybe now I can be loved in my home. Like when I said,

“The Pottawattomies were much too square.

They left nothing behind but their dirty river.

While we shall leave, for remembrance, one rusty iron heart.

The city’s rusty heart that hold’s both the hustler and the square.

Take them both and holds them there.

For keeps and a single day.

And as Algren roars, crying out for his home, I look around a filling in all the benches in the garden, I see a virtual parade of poetic giants: T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, James Merrill, Gwendolyn Brooks.

All of them having filled the pages of Poetry Magazine.

I pull a copy of the magazine out of my back-pack, just to have it in my hands. It arrives at my house each month. Always a surprise, because money does not arrive at my house every month. But the magazine does. And I devour that magazine like a meal wrapped in gratitude.

The garden is almost full now. I remember this from the poet Steven Orlen:

“Now everything is real;

There is a beginning and an ending.

The end is like a dream in which

You’ve found friends who understand.”

From inside the building, Poetry Magazine’s Chris Wiman, the Editor, and Don Share, the Senior Editor, wander out into the garden, at a distance their talk is animated. They’re laughing.

In that laughter, echoes of Wiman’s poem “Given a God More Playful,” one of my favorites.

The rain lets up as the spirits all come to attention. Sitting up straighter on their benches. Harriet Monroe gives a slight nod.

The poet Check Stetson once wrote “Poetry is a short memory overload, do it right and the imagery floods the senses.”

In the Poetry Garden in Chicago, surrounded by the spirits who built the soul of this building, every sense is alive, ready, waiting, challenging.

Curious.

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