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Poets, Inc.

Can a big pot of money - and a savvy marketing plan - make poetry matter again?

Poetry magazine

THREE YEARS ago, a pharmaceutical heiress made Poetry magazine, the venerable monthly that discovered T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, the richest literary journal in the history of the world. The sum of $175 million, given by Ruth Lilly, made the subject of poetry into news fit to print in just about every newspaper in America.

The sum's vastness enticed some poets into imaginative flight. The poet Rafael Campo rhapsodized in an opinion piece in the Globe that a ''Poetry Palace" built with the gift might come to house ''factory workers and firefighters, immigrants, and descendents of slaves," and that ''such a rich community of poetry-lovers could truly repair this broken planet." In the London Independent, Campbell McGrath had a more modest but (as it turns out) no less fanciful wish: ''I hope that, as much as possible, Poetry will find a way to call up individual poets and say, 'You're not going to believe this, but we're going to give you money."'

Of course, some in the literary world have declined to get caught up in the excitement. ''We have thousands of very bad poets in the USA. There are also 20 or so good ones," writes eminent Yale critic Harold Bloom in a recent e-mail. ''All that money should be used to fight poverty and illness here and abroad."

The coverage, by turns dutiful and bemused, threw into sharp relief the wider culture's neglect of poetry. That so many could hope for so much from Ruth Lilly's gift-about as much as it cost to make ''Waterworld"-showed how humble are the art form's worldly expectations.

Nonetheless, the stewards of that large sum believe they can use it to bring poetry ''back into the mainstream of American culture," says John Barr, the president of the Poetry Foundation, which was formed to manage the bequest. The foundation hired Barr, a former Wall Street executive and published poet, to implement a strategic vision that is as notable for what it does not do as for what it does. Campbell McGrath's wish is going to go unfulfilled: The foundation won't be handing out grants to poets or institutions.

Instead, the foundation's strategy emphasizes rebuilding a general, nonspecialist, and, crucially, nonacademic audience for poetry. This approach seems consistent with a notorious polemic by the poet, critic, and former General Foods marketing executive Dana Gioia, now the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. In an essay entitled ''Can Poetry Matter?" published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991, Gioia argued that an ''American poetry establishment" had ''imprisoned poetry in an intellectual ghetto." Though more books of poetry were being published than ever before-"a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art"-the university-based subculture of poetry had turned inward, and renounced a broader readership, he argued.

Now the richest poetry institution in the country has declared its intent to break up the insularity of the poetry world in two ways-through the stinging polemics in the back of a revamped Poetry magazine under the editorship of Christian Wiman and through a series of programs designed to jumpstart interest in poetry among nonspecialist readers.

''We believe that the golden age for any art happens when that art is written for and derives its energy from the general audience of its time," said Barr in a recent telephone interview. ''And if and when an art form becomes a more closeted and insular affair, it's going to lose some of that energy."

Not everyone shares Barr's vision, however, and some critics of the foundation's initiatives wonder whether poetry can, or should, restore its cultural authority by way of a marketing campaign.

. . .

Indeed, Barr doesn't hesitate to use the language of corporate marketing to talk about his outreach efforts, speaking of ''demographic groups" and ''poetry users." With annual budgets that should range from $5 million to $10 million a year, Barr says, the Poetry Foundation's ultimate goal is to create a general readership for poetry large enough to make it possible for more poets to succeed in a commercial marketplace rather than rely on academia to make a living.

The foundation's initial slate of programs should all be up and running by the end of this year. A major website, scheduled to launch on Jan. 20, will present an archive of classic and contemporary poetry, along with daily news coverage of the poetry world that will be broadly reflective of the art as a whole but aim to stir up spirited exchanges, said the site's editor, Emily Warn.

The foundation is funding American Life in Poetry, a weekly column by the United States poet laureate, Ted Kooser, in mid-sized and rural newspapers reaching an estimated audience of 3.85 million readers, along with a program to help newspapers identify and secure permission to print poems. Results from a foundation-funded national survey on Americans' poetry reading habits should become available in the spring. And the foundation eventually hopes to build a ''National Home for Poetry" that will serve as library, museum, and think tank-"a kind of Aspen Institute of poetry," according to the press release.

The foundation also created two new prizes in 2005 that seem like a subtle jab at the poetry establishment. The Emily Dickinson Award, for a poet over the age of 50 who has not previously published a book of poems, went to the 79-year old Landis Everson. The Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism-aimed at calling attention to critics who write for general rather than specialist audiences-went to New York Times contributor and New Criterion columnist William Logan. Logan's exacting reviews, Wiman has noted, have earned him the moniker ''the most hated man in American poetry."

The choice of Logan as its first honoree is entirely in keeping with the newly pugnacious tone of Poetry magazine's review section. ''Part of what I've tried to do is to make Poetry into a place where people can expect honest reviews," said Wiman, a plain-spoken fellow from East Texas who has taught at Stanford and Northwestern. ''If the readers are going to disagree with something, they're going to disagree vehemently, but at least they'll have a genuine reaction."

Founded in 1912, and once synonymous with the triumphs of early American modernism, the magazine remains committed to its famous ''open door" policy-to publish the best poetry in any style, genre, or approach. But Wiman doesn't shrink from offering blunt prescriptions. ''More poems should rhyme. More poems should have meter. More poems should tell stories in accomplished ways. More poems should do the things that people like poems to do," he said. ''There is great stuff that's being written in an insular and esoteric vein. But there should also be a broad band of poetry available to common readers."

The magazine's efforts to engage a broader audience seem to be working. When Wiman took over Poetry in October 2003, the magazine's circulation was 11,000. Today it stands at roughly 29,000.

. . .

The Poetry Foundation's posture as a kind of heavily endowed insurgency trying to shake up the poetry world has drawn two kinds of critics: those who think the foundation is addressing an illusory crisis and those who think the foundation's approach is misconceived.

Jordan Davis, a poet, critic, and blogger who edited the recent edition of Kenneth Koch's collected poems, is a participant in New York's active poetry demimonde. ''The art is in much better shape than people want to say for whatever reason," he said. ''Often it's the case that people just have their own ideas of what kind of poetry they like, and they don't want the other stuff to be acknowledged."

Richard Nash, the publisher of the fiercely independent Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press, is about to scale back his extensive poetry list, most of which he's lost money on. Nash believes that the future of poetry lies with small-scale ''poet-entrepreneurs" working at a grass-roots level and through the Internet to rebuild an audience from the ground up.

''America is nothing but an agglomeration of subcultures," he avers in response to the idea that poetry has left the mainstream. ''You can't build these worthy, top-down 19th-century institutions to meet the cultural needs of a 21st-century world. The new poetry audience is going to be built face to face, one book at a time."

University of Rochester professor James Longenbach considers the effort to make poetry ''matter" or ''relevant to the lives of Americans" a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes poetry work. His 2004 book ''The Resistance to Poetry" opens with an extended brief on behalf of poetry's marginalization. ''Poets can do without much money," he wrote in an e-mail, ''and that's a good thing. . . . Poets have much more aesthetic freedom precisely because nobody cares how or what they write. That freedom is priceless."

Ultimately, the Lilly gift may be an experiment relevant to all serious art struggling to subsist in America. What can you change with a large amount of money? What should you try to change? And will those changes ultimately serve the art form in the way you hoped?

''Even people who don't read much poetry want to hear that poetry is good for us and that we can do something-even spend money-to make it better," Longenbach writes by e-mail. ''That doesn't mean that it is good for us or that it will be better."

Wesley Yang is a journalist and critic in New York.

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