Poetry magazine also received the same types of letters—and that editor Harriet Monroe didn't just pitch 'em into the trash but collected them in a special file she labeled as her "museum" file? In the following guest posting by one of the most provocative new voices we've encountered on the modernist studies scene, Erin Kappeler—currently a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow at Tufts University and pictured here and above—ruminates on the implications of these letters (and the poetry they reference) for how we think about their writers, Monroe's aesthetic, Poetry's role in shaping the landscape of American poetry, and American poetry criticism in general, which has frequently bestowed upon Poetry a privileged, even messianic, place in the rejuvenation of American verse in the twentieth century. This material comes from the final chapter of Kappeler's dissertation, Shaping Free Verse: American Prosody and Poetics, 1880-1920, other segments of which are forthcoming in Critical Rhythm (ed. Jonathan Culler and Ben Glaser, Fordham University Press). We love what Kappeler has to say about Monroe's Museum, and we think you will to.
Hemingway, it would be pretty to think that it was so. But rumors of poetry's demise were sparked by a particularly narrow view of poetry's role in cultural life. Any number of sources can dispel the idea that the poetry of the 1890s, 1900s, and early 1910s was stagnant, out of touch, and unread, but one particularly useful (and surprising) source of evidence is the archives of Poetry itself. Monroe donated her editorial files to the University of Chicago in 1931, including a series she labeled "museum" files (now boxes 42-46), which house an impressive array of fan letters, poems, complaints, and appeals, identified variously as "boosts," "knocks," "crank letters," and "amusing letters." The curious thing about these files is the way they group seemingly outré exchanges with letters from poets who simply seem too lowbrow for Poetry. The ramblings of an isolated crank or religious visionary, for instance, are given as much credence as the protests of Ella Wheeler Wilcox or the entreaty of an amateur poet. This grouping reflects Monroe's tendency to dismiss as uniform in character any aesthetic paradigms that did not mirror her own. If none of the hundreds of unsolicited letters she received on a monthly basis (Monroe claimed that at one point Poetry received roughly 2,500 poems from 500 would-be contributors every month; only a small percentage of these letters are represented in Poetry's official archive) reflected her own self-avowedly modern poetic vision, then it proved that American poetry was going through a particularly arid phase, and "needed stirring up" (249). But the sheer volume of these letters gives the lie to the story of poetry's stagnation. A closer look at Monroe's "museum" files shows that, far from bringing poetry to readers who had been ignoring it, Monroe sought to discipline readers out of their promiscuous habits of consumption.
March issue of Poetry—not for the seventeen William Carlos Williams poems leading off the issue, but for Florence Snelling's "March in Tryon" and Frances Shaw's "World Lullaby." Halliburton noted that she enjoyed these poems especially because "the metre of the verses keeps them in my mind even if I forget the happily chosen words." She was able to appreciate the finer points of versification because she had been born a poet, she explained, thanks to the prenatal influence of the wildly popular Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
In your correspondence department I find that you are really interested in the poets who contribute to or read your magazine. Maybe you will be interested in hearing how I happened to be born a poet. For that it was. Before my birth my mother was given a copy of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poem, "Maurine," with some other of her verses. She enjoyed it so much and read it over and over, with no thougth [sic] however as to prenatal influence on the child to which she was to give birth. When I came and proved to be not the boy that was wanted but a girl instead, I was named for the poem that had been so enjoyed by my mother. Before I could write them I was composing verses. When I learned to write I wrote short poems to all members of the family, including numerous poets of which I was fond. I kept this up through all my school days. The product was, of course not at all remarkable as literature but I enjoyed it. I have only a few of the many poems I wrote during my growing up although at one time I had about thirty or more all together in a note book. I lost it and only have those I could remember and re-write. I am twenty-one. In the last five years I have completed one hundred and seven poems, all of which I have. The last year has been the one in which most of my writing was done. Probably this was die [sic] to the fact that I was compelled to remain at home with my mother and thus had more time than I had had before. The other day I read a copy of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's life and was surprised to find that she attributed her talent to the prenatal influence of her mother's reading of poetry and literature. However this is not uncommon but it interested me as Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poems had been the direct cause of my having the talent she claims came to her in a similar manner.
I have had two poems published in THE AJAX, a poetry magazine of Alton, Illinois, and have not long ago received a check from LIFE for a short poem. Aside from that I am quite obscure. But the writing of poetry is a pleasure and, altho [sic] one desires to be recognized, the lack of recognition does not discourage a writer. I hope sometime to have something in your pages, so will continue to send verses at times... P.S. Just as I finished this the postman brought me another check from "Life." I'm rather elated.