Good news for poetry
November 18, 2002 8:57 PM   Subscribe

An astonishing bequest of $100 million to Poetry Magazine instantly turns a 4-person literary journal into the wealthiest poetry organization on the planet. The benefactress, Ruth Lilly, has given millions to libraries and medical research labs in the midwest. But poetry has never been showered with such munificence until now. What will this donation achieve beyond ensuring the existence of the journal into perpetuity?
posted by dougb (46 comments total)
obviously the dawning of the era of glam lit.

Seriously though, this is great news... a real-life fairy godmother story.
posted by taz at 9:24 PM on November 18, 2002

Man, for all that moolah, they sure have a dodgy website. I was going to send them an e-mail offering to redesign it for them (and clear up those nasty broken links, etc.) as a courtesy, but I couldn't even find a contact address....
posted by oissubke at 9:27 PM on November 18, 2002

All I know is that I'd better be seeing some really, really good poetry... and soon.

I want to see the best poetry that money can buy. Haven't we all thought at some time or another... "I'd like to see what these poets could do if only someone would just sink some money into it!"
posted by cadastral at 9:30 PM on November 18, 2002

This is wonderful news, and shows some real devotion on the part of the benefactress, considering they rejected her poetry.
posted by Salmonberry at 9:31 PM on November 18, 2002

I hate to sound cynical, but when big money gets involved things change in a lot of ways, not all of them good. The kind of people (and their lawyers) who will now find ways to insinuate themselves into the picture will give new meaning to the term 'culture vulture'. You know the kind I mean. They go to all the best parties, have their names on a lot of letterheads and everyone carefully ignores the fact that they are spectacularly evil. Oh, and the current publisher needs to watch out for a putsch.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:50 PM on November 18, 2002

This is insane.
posted by gsteff at 9:59 PM on November 18, 2002

Man. I wonder if I could convince them to be my patron.

Because, honestly, patronage needs to make a resurgence.
posted by keef at 10:02 PM on November 18, 2002

I'm conflicted on this one... I mean: how in the world is Poetry expected to spend ~5 million a year without unleashing mounds of crap? On the other hand: Hurrah! There's never enough money for art.

Quick idea: they should support a non-publication prize -- a 2 year stipend to a poet willing to spend that time re-writing poems instead of publishing them to pad their CV. When even writers are beginning to say too many books are being published, it's time to take a hard look at how our grant money is going to the arts. With a budget that could easily support the publishing of 40-100 poetry titles a year, I hope Poetry resists the temptation & instead spends on education and non-publishing-related grant-making activities for poets; thinks more about cultivation than publication of our best poets.
posted by minnesotaj at 10:35 PM on November 18, 2002

I wonder how they're going to use the money. Perhaps opening up offices in Paris and Hawaii, a private Poetry Magazine jet, a masseuse and a full time chef at the office, Superbowl commercials... and big parties filled with models for each release. The possiblilities are astounding.
posted by bobo123 at 10:46 PM on November 18, 2002

Marginal analysis is a very useful tool of economists. It basically demands that when deciding how much of a resource to devote to a given use, you consider how much additional benefit each unit of the resource will give you.

The first hundred thousand dollars you donate to a publication with four employees would be very useful. The second hundred thousand dollars would be somewhat less useful. The next 998 hundred thousand dollar units would do progressively less for whatever goal you want to achieve, to the point of absurdity. Donate $100 million to the united nations. Make a targeted donation to the national endowment for the arts if you'd like.

I hope that Poetry Magazine has the werewithal to deal with this surprise responsibly, i.e. by setting up extensive systems to redistribute it in the name of poetry, rather than funding themselves with it. Heck, I'll even venture to say that they probably will deal with this unexpected responsibility appropriately. But why put that burden on their shoulders? There are other middlemen.
posted by gsteff at 10:51 PM on November 18, 2002

Oh great, just think of all the kids who will start going to college to pursue those lucrative poetry degrees!!!
posted by hincandenza at 11:01 PM on November 18, 2002

gsteff couldn't have put it better; while the donation goes beyond any appreciable, accountable amount, the number of people dying of curable diseases worldwide or students leaving school because the cost of education was prohibitive grows with every passing day. What will do the greater good for mankind as a whole? More poetry?
posted by jonson at 11:03 PM on November 18, 2002

I wonder how they're going to use the money.

Hmm, the Sabres are looking for a new owner. I'm sure the people of Buffalo won't mind seeing their hockey at Poetry arena -- even if it means sitting through incoherent poetry-slam promotions during the intermissions and Walt Whitman bobble-head dolls.
posted by eatitlive at 11:13 PM on November 18, 2002

Hurrah! There's never enough money for art.

Yeah, especially since those nasty bug-a-boos of poverty and ignorance have been eradicated.

Really, if you want to help the arts, don't give money to artists. Help educate people, teach them to read, to think critically, and to appreciate culture. (Of course, this won't be good for some artists, but WTF. Such is life.)
posted by Ayn Marx at 11:26 PM on November 18, 2002

This is like those old jokes about farming...

A poetry magazine publisher wins the lottery and is asked what [s]he will do with the winnings. "I suppose I'll just keep publishing until the money runs out."


It is discovered that a poetry magazine has been enormously successful and has a million dollars in cash in the bank. When asked the secret to the publication's success, the publisher says, "Well, you start with $100 million..."
posted by kindall at 12:45 AM on November 19, 2002

This money would have been better spent sponsoring legislation to ban all but official, state-sponsored poetry, and to outlaw unlicensed poets, thereby encouraging an underground of oppressed versifiers able to harness a wave of popular sympathy with their poignantly romantic accounts of life on the run from the poetry police.
posted by misteraitch at 2:30 AM on November 19, 2002

Really, if you want to help the arts, don't give money to artists. Help educate people, teach them to read, to think critically, and to appreciate culture.

I can't believe I'm agreeing with someone going by the name Ayn Marx, but it seems that such is the case. :-)

You can print all the books and magazines you want, but they're useless unless people want to read them.
posted by oissubke at 5:04 AM on November 19, 2002

The Buffalo Sabres
Are a really bad team,
As bad as it can get,

I can't watch their games,
They cause me great pain,
Because they can't put the puck in the net.
posted by Fabulon7 at 5:52 AM on November 19, 2002

Damn, man.... that's like a lot of berets and bongos.
posted by ph00dz at 6:13 AM on November 19, 2002

Maybe they'll use the money to

- up their payout from $2/line to $200,000/line. (Starting with Fabulon's $1.2mil masterpiece.)

- file to go public, launching a new ".org" stock market craze.

- singlehandedly revive Chicago-area web design shop MarchFirst with a $50 million account to make a slick new website focusing on "Poetry solutions for the enterprise"
posted by dougb at 6:40 AM on November 19, 2002

I heard an interview Poetry's editor last night on NPR - to paraphrase, they are going to treat the money as an endowment, using the interest on investments to secure the magazine's future. One project the editor mentioned was that they would increase funding to educate teachers on how to teach contemporary poetry to K-12 students. I'm sure they will also create fellowships, contests, and publicatiobns to encourage and finance poets.

My opinion is that this is good, but that 100 million is *a lot* of money for a magazine with a 60k annual budget. That said, Poetry is one of the best poetry magazines out there, so I'm sure they will put the money to good use without compromising their standards. I also think that I heard that Ruth Lilly is typically very hands-off with the money she chooses to invest - I doubt she will exert much, if any, pressure on them.
posted by drobot at 6:51 AM on November 19, 2002

She's been very hands-off, because she has been officially mentally incompetent since 1981. Her brother, and after his death, a pack of lawyers, have been actually "managing" her vast fortune since then. And coming in for some well-founded criticism for it at times, too.
posted by yhbc at 7:00 AM on November 19, 2002

yhbc - While the courts declared her incompetent, the article makes it sound like the bequests to Poetry and other arts projects have largely been at her request.
posted by drobot at 7:13 AM on November 19, 2002

Poetry is one of the best poetry magazines out there

Um, everyone's entitled to an opinion, but I think the consensus is that this hasn't been true for, oh, 70 years or so. On the other hand, it will certainly get true fast (unless they go the bobo123 route, which god knows I would). And she probably wouldn't have made the bequest to Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.
posted by languagehat at 7:49 AM on November 19, 2002

Yes, my opinion. By whose consensus are you saying that it hasn't been true for 70 years? Look at the list of the poets featured in this month's issue. I'm one of those (rare?) people who likes both traditional and experimental poetry and fiction - yes, Poetry tends toward the traditional and much of what they publish is by the 'bigger' poets, but it's still one of the most read, most highly regarded poetry magazines out there.
posted by drobot at 8:08 AM on November 19, 2002

"This is wonderful news, and shows some real devotion on the part of the benefactress, considering they rejected her poetry."

Think they'll take it now?
posted by muppetboy at 8:28 AM on November 19, 2002

drobot: I also like both, but I admit I haven't looked into Poetry much since I decided it was terminally staid; on the other hand, it's hardly fair to say "look at ... this month's issue" as if it were a random sample:

"POETRY Magazine celebrates its 90th year of uninterrupted monthly publication with a special double issue featuring new poems by 77 of its most loved contributors. From Ashbery, Bly, and Collins to Kizer, Kumin, and Oliver to Wojahn, Wright, and Wrigley, the 90th Anniversary issue is an up-to-date anthology of what's best in contemporary verse."

I'll definitely pick it up, and I promise I'll check the magazine out more frequently.
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on November 19, 2002

Yes, good point, Languagehat - the 90th year special is uncharacteristically spectacular. Here's a list of the poets in the last four years' of issues which provides a more realistic overview. Still, an impressive list of poets (Charlie Smith, Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, Billy Collins, and Kim Addonizio are just a few names that stand out.)
posted by drobot at 9:14 AM on November 19, 2002

That Globe article is depressing. Poetry's editor specifically states that the magazine will not be handing out grants with the money, but will be investing it and using the interest to fund their own operations. Lets see: Poetry's budget, the article says, is currently 60k/year. 100 million dollars, earning 3% interest, is 3 million dollars a year. That enough to fund 50 duplicates of Poetry. Until eternity.
posted by gsteff at 9:24 AM on November 19, 2002

maybe Poetry can get Eshlemans' 'Sulfur' back up and running (kidding). wow, i just checked out the site last night and lamented about snodgrass' rather...shitty poem in the feature section. Poetry is pretty much the best mag around for poetry. I like APR, but Poetry is very good. Perhaps they will expand the mag, turn into a bimonthly. Offer richer prizes (say 20$ a line) or perhaps start another mag for just younger poets or for criticism. But to pump into the workshop scam and massive educational programs would be pretty much fruitless to some degree. I would like to see a million set aside a year for poets in need. Create something like a "poets house' that poets can actually reside in for long periods. Plato said the poet had no place in the republic or something to that effect, but with 100$ mil (if they get it), one can certainly try. I wonder how this will effect the NEA concerning poetry. More over, will this effect the mission statement set for Poetry to be independent, nonaffiliated with any school or institution.
posted by clavdivs at 9:34 AM on November 19, 2002

Ron Silliman seems to be doing ok for himself (as much as can be expected, for a poet) according to his blog, he's written and edited 24 books, one of which was published by the National Poetry Foundation. Don't know much about Violi, although a quick search of Amazon showed a few of his books. For a poet to even publish one book is a huge accomplishment, I think.

Anyway, my point was to say that there is a place for formalism and tradition (which in most arts will appeal to the broadest number of people) and experimentalism (which has a much smaller audience). I hope that the money helps broaden the appeal of poetry to a larger audience. That's why I think Billy Collins is great. I'm not a huge fan of his poetry (I do like it), but I think that what he's done for *all* poetry has been fantastic - show that poetry can be funny and accessible.

And as for formal poetry being unimaginative tripe, I disagree, but that's just my opinion. Even if you dislike it though, I think understanding and appreciating it can lend to a greater appreciation of innovative poetry. I'm sure that any experimental poet has at least studied form, and probably has at least some respect for the value of writing in form, even if it's not how they ultimately make a name for themselves.
posted by drobot at 11:33 AM on November 19, 2002

I thought that I would never see
Such a huge bequest to Poetry!

Now ink-stained wretches lick their chops,
hoping, at last, to get their props

Or at least a big fat wad of cash
With which to replenish their "creativity" stash,

But sadly trends now indicate
that be it bad or be it great,

Telcoms, stocks, or even verse:
Big piles of moolah just make it worse.

---(c) 2002 the reverse vampire ghost of Joyce Kilmer
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:39 AM on November 19, 2002

It's "in perpetuity."
posted by ParisParamus at 12:29 PM on November 19, 2002

I too dislike it.

Offer richer prizes (say 20$ a line) or perhaps start another mag for just younger poets or for criticism.... I would like to see a million set aside a year for poets in need. Create something like a "poets house' that poets can actually reside in for long periods.

clavdivs, you should apply to be administrator of the fund. Your ideas make much more sense than anything they're likely to do.
posted by languagehat at 12:32 PM on November 19, 2002

languagehat - Those are great ideas! What's so radical about creating a writers' retreat, paying more per line, and starting more journals? I think the best idea is the one that they've openly stated - they want to fund programs to get young people to read and write poetry.

What else would they do with the money? I don't understand your skepticism.
posted by drobot at 12:42 PM on November 19, 2002

Something I think is worth criticizing about this is that I think 100 million is *way* more than one publication needs, especially when they were doing a great job on 60k a year. I wonder what would have happened if she had chosen to spread the money around to several literature magazines instead of just one.
posted by drobot at 12:45 PM on November 19, 2002

What's that line? I think it's from The White House Mess -- We gotta be careful. This could turn us all into assholes.

My concern is that this is far more than the magazine Poetry needs -- a $60,000K/yr budget could certainly be expanded to a quarter mil or more, funding a secretary and the like, and could fund better facilities and promotion (I just hope it isn't like those cheesy cable ads for the New Yorker under Tina Brown). And perhaps a higher salary for the (no doubt, until now overworked) editor.

The one saving grace is that this is a planned gift, with payments staggered over several years. On TV the editor said that the first payment was $10M but later ones would be smaller. That's magaeable, at least. The magazine's board will have plenty of time to determine how to spend the money, because they won't have all of it right away. I do wonder, though, what restrictions Ms. Lilly put on the gift, as that could severely hamper them.

But I remain concerned. This may attract the wrong sort of person to the magazine's board, and could very well result in the organization losing its focus on the magazine. I'm thinking, right now, of the court house clock that my dad acquired for the historical society he ran while I was growing up. For reasons unknown and daftness deep, the current society has sold this clock. It's not like they're the Smithville HS and it's just some clock; they're the Smith County HS, and this was the clock in the Smith County courthouse for something like 50 years. It's their job to save stuff like this. God only knows what they're thinking, but it has the smell of money.
posted by dhartung at 2:53 PM on November 19, 2002

drobot: Yes, those are great ideas; that's why I was applauding them.

I think the best idea is ... to fund programs to get young people to read and write poetry.

I disagree. Going by what I've seen of such programs, they encourage the production of tripe. Pouring millions into such programs would simply encourage the production of mind-boggling amounts of tripe. Real poets latch onto poetry whether grade-school teachers "encourage" it or not, and there's no way of increasing the supply. The best that can be done is to identify such poets ex post facto, by their publications, and make it possible for them not to have to worry about paying the rent. I wish somebody had done that for Lorine Niedecker. That's why I liked clavdiv's suggestions; they would support existing poets who need it. And like several of the commenters here, I think the sudden access to vast amounts of money tends not to be good for organizations.

But then, I do tend to be a skeptic -- you've got me dead to rights.
posted by languagehat at 3:19 PM on November 19, 2002

But I remain concerned. This may attract the wrong sort of person to the magazine's board

I'm not sure there is a board but, as of 1995, the contributors index contains such luminaries as:
Illinois Arts council, The MacNamara family, Prince Charitable Trusts, Marvin 'dead men said' Bell, CNA Insurance, Joe Epstein, X.J. Kennedy, Stan Kunitz, James Laughlin, Bob Hicok, Lannan Foundation, Phillip Agree, Neal Bowers, Tom Disch, Galway Kinnell, Robert Pinsky (watch him) Parisi is a good editor and decent poet. Perhaps this endowment could free resources for other projects as the contributors section is about 5 pages.

I would love to peek at the endowment papers on this. But Ruth Lilly seems to have a sense of freedom. I mean the mag rejected her work yet still gave this huge legacy. Thats integrity.
posted by clavdivs at 4:24 PM on November 19, 2002

languagehat - Yes, we agree that they are good suggestions, but why wouldn't those things? What terrible thing do you think they will do with the money?

The idea of encouraging people to write is not to churn out more great poets. The idea is that by teaching the writing of poetry, students will have a greater appreciation and understanding of the poetry that they read. Same goes for fiction, essays, *whatever*.
posted by drobot at 6:29 PM on November 19, 2002

I'm surprised that this many comments in, no one has posited that this is her way of giving back to all those depressed writers who have taken Prozac, a Lilly product.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:33 PM on November 19, 2002

clavdivs, to accept tax-deductible charitable donations, they must be a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and so they are.

Here's a thought. Poetry magazine could encourage the development of a software application that would enable aspiring poets to quickly publish their work on the web, a sort of 'poetry log', or 'plog'. The application (and by extension, the poets themselves) could be called 'plogger'; free hosting could be provided at a 'plogspot'. The endowment would be used to make this service entirely free in perpetuity. It would be hard to guarantee that all the work published this way was poetry, and the content would easily fall prey to Sturgeon's Law, but that's a small price to pay for the gems that could emerge.
posted by dhartung at 11:54 PM on November 19, 2002

No animosity intended dhartung, but enough aspiring (and established) poets already don't spend enough (any) time revising their volumes of vomitus, and now you want to dangle instant publication in front of them with Plogger? <shudder>

(Okay, "volumes of vomitus" was bad, but it's getting too late to alliterate. Or rhyme.)

<pipe dream> What I'd like to see done with the money (but won't happen because of literary politics, among other things) is for them to start a magazine on the appreciation, rather than criticism, of poetry. Essays about the poetry of past, current, and up-and-coming poets, addressing what those poems do for the essayists, with some nuts-and-bolts (i.e. non-theoretical) analysis of how. What we have now are current poets defending their own academic relevance (i.e. posterity) and current academics defending their tenure (or paving their way to it) with theoretical criticism that no non-specialist will read anyway.

People who want to devote their lives to poetry, will--$100 million or not. Poetry doesn't need more writers and scholars, it needs more readers and lovers--and more ways to bring them all together. </pipe dream>
posted by DaShiv at 3:53 AM on November 20, 2002

dhart, that is an excellent idea(r). Really, but I feel the plog idea should not have a direct pipeline to 'Poetry'(as far as "this is "poetry mag on-line as they have one already), though the mag could scoop up the gems there with-in. But funding a comprehensive site and software is excellent. fantastic. It would provide employment for both computer people and the poetry crowd. The web needs some big names involved in on-line publishing. Something with class and standards. I am not too familiar with poetblogs (but Karl and LH have me looking) Perhaps an on-line journal of younger poets work. criticism, prose, pics. Endless ideas.
i now understand about the non-profit board versus the contributors issue. thanks for pointing that out. I hung out at an IRC poets room in the mid nineties for abit. Found out that it was clickish and no one wanted to expand ideas.

a on-line, realtime participant like kinnell or even pinksky could really help along something like a plogger board.
posted by clavdivs at 8:55 AM on November 20, 2002

pinksy=pinsky. hehe
posted by clavdivs at 8:56 AM on November 20, 2002

Here's a thought.

dhartung, I dearly hope that was sarcastic. Change the "p"s for "b"s and we already got one. Trick is to get people who can actually write to start using it (yes, I did know).
posted by walrus at 7:04 AM on November 21, 2002

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