by box, document by document, Chicago librarians work to preserve
an extraordinary record of modern literature-correspondence, manuscripts,
and other papers from the nation's first little magazine of the
20th century: Poetry, A Magazine of Verse.
OCTOBER 1914 a letter arrived at the offices of
Poetry magazine in Chicago announcing a discovery. The letter
was from London, and its tone suggested an event only slightly
less wondrous than the Virgin Birth: the appearance of a truly
modern American poet.
has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN.
The rest of the promising young have done one or the
other but never both. Most of the swine have done neither. It
is such a comfort to meet a man and not have to tell him to
wash his face, wipe his feet, and remember the date (1914) on
writer was Ezra Pound, Poetry's "foreign correspondent"
and a tireless prospector for fresh talent. His discovery was
a young marvel from Missouri who had written "the best poem
I have yet seen from an American." The poem had gone unpublished
in Britain, where one editor called it "absolutely insane."
But in its search for the new, Poetry was willing to risk
a little insanity. Some months later it brought out "The
Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The opening lines may be
mad, but they are unforgettable:
us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
was the first of T. S. Eliot's mature poetry to be published in
the United States. He did not exactly burst upon the scene. The
literary critic Louis Untermeyer said that "Prufrock"
was "the first piece of the English language that utterly
The effect was that of the Muse in a psychopathic
ward." And yet Pound's judgment was true. Eliot became one
of the high priests of 20th-century poetry and "Prufrock"
one of its sacred texts.
Eliot's manuscript resides in a slender manila folder in the basement
of the Regenstein Library. Its six pages show evidence of much
handling but are otherwise intact. The folder contains five more
poems, all neatly typed on the same thin, slightly yellowed paper.
Years ago-nobody remembers exactly when-archivists sandwiched
four of the manuscripts (not "Prufrock") between layers
of tissue paper to protect them. Pound's letter is filed separately,
a small portion of a voluble correspondence that goes on folder
after folder as Pound tries single-handedly to create a new kind
of poetry that would be "straight as the greek!"
manuscripts, Pound's letters, and a great deal more of the early
correspondence of Poetry magazine have been housed in the
Library archives since the death of the magazine's founder, Harriet
Monroe, in 1936. The collection is one of the treasures of the
Library's Special Collections and of literary history itself.
Poetry played a crucial role in the development of literary
modernism, encouraging and publishing early in their careers most
of the great poets writing in English in the first half of the
20th century-not only Eliot and Pound but also Wallace Stevens,
William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell,
and William Butler Yeats. The correspondence of these and scores
of lesser poets make an extraordinary record of 20th-century poetry
as it was hammered out letter by letter, manuscript by manuscript,
issue by issue.
is also a record vulnerable to smudges, rips, fading ink, yellowing-all
the small afflictions and slow degradation to which paper is heir.
With a $125,000 grant from the federal government's Save America's
Treasures program, University librarians have begun going through
the collection piece by piece, putting it into order and preparing
it for microfilming. By next June they plan to have the entire
collection on film, with some of the more vulnerable pieces to
receive special treatment from professional conservators. The
project's aim is to permit greater access to the collection-and
to wage war against acidification, creasing, folding, tearing,
oily hands, dust, light, and disorder.
A MAGAZINE OF VERSE
was the first American literary magazine, or little magazine,
of the 20th century. Started by Harriet Monroe in 1912, in its
first few years, it published many important poets at a time when
they were still struggling to find an audience. Poetry
reflected the energy and expansiveness of turn-of-the-century
Chicago, and regional poets like Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay,
and Edgar Lee Masters were among its early favorites, but its
scope was international. A third of its contributors were British,
including Yeats, James Joyce, Rupert Brooke, and Edward Thomas.
its success was hard won. Poetry's circulation was never
great, and it struggled constantly to pay its bills. Free verse,
Imagism, and other experiments excited poets but baffled the public,
whose notions of poetry were shaped by grade-school memorizations
of Longfellow and Whittier. Just as remarkable as publishing so
many great poets is that Poetry managed to survive. Decades
after most of its rivals failed, Poetry continues to publish
from offices in the Newberry Library on Chicago's north side.
magazine's tenacity is reflected in the abundance of editorial
papers it has left behind, a large part of which ended up at the
University thanks to Harold Swift, AB'07, a longtime University
trustee and booster. Swift, one of Poetry's early supporters,
gave the magazine $5,000 when it was short of cash and close to
shutting down. In return, Harriet Monroe bequeathed the University
not only the magazine's editorial files but also her personal
papers and a large number of modern-poetry books. The editorial
files continued to grow until 1960, when Poetry's editors
struck a better deal with the Lilly Library at Indiana University,
where the papers have been deposited ever since.
importance to modern poetry has made its papers one of Chicago's
most frequently used collections. "You can't do work on some
of these major and minor poets without consulting the collection,"
says Alice Schreyer, curator of Special Collections. "From
a broader perspective, it's very important for an understanding
of the development of an audience for modern poetry. You really
get into the way that poets marketed their works and related to
editors. You get a feeling for poetry as a literary activity and
process. Not the creative impulse, but the mechanisms and activities
by which these authors found an audience.
For people working
in certain areas of literary history, this tells an essential
part of the story."
good-quality paper can last a long time. The oldest paper-like
documents in Regenstein are fragments of flattened papyrus from
the second century a.d. In terms of durability, more recent innovations-floppy
disks, videos-can't come close.
however, also fell prey to innovation. Around 1870 paper manufacturers
began to shift from cotton rags to wood pulp. This was a boon
to publishers of newspapers and cheap paperbacks, but in hindsight
a setback for archivists. Paper made from wood pulp acidifies,
yellows, turns brittle, breaks. Just how big a problem this poses
for libraries is a subject of dispute. In his latest book Double
Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, the novelist Nicholson
Baker argues that librarians, particularly those at the Library
of Congress, have exaggerated the problem of acidic paper. As
a result, he says, they have allowed major newspaper collections,
including long runs of the New York Times and the Chicago
Tribune, to be destroyed after being microfilmed. A foolish
embrace of microfilm has deprived us of the thing itself, he argues:
in the case of newspapers, the thing itself is a far superior
record to a black and white image that is difficult to use and
may itself not last.
University Library has no plans to toss out any of the Poetry
collection. Yet acidification is a serious problem for the collection's
grab bag of documents. Many letters were written or typed on high-quality
bond paper, but others were not. The collection also contains
telegrams, galley sheets, carbon copies, and newspaper clippings-all
printed on cheap paper. But acidification is not the only problem.
Paper clips stain, staples leave holes, and even a careful researcher,
flipping through a folder of old letters, may inadvertently introduce
small tears, knock off bent corners, leave fingerprints.
time is the greater threat. "There are chemical processes
going on in some of those materials that will continue even if
the materials are held in plastic folders," says Daniel Meyer,
AM'75, PhD'94, associate curator of Special Collections and University
archivist. "Usage can be controlled. But the chemical processes
continue and in the long run they're the greatest threat. It's
not a uniform issue that can be solved by uniform remedies. It's
got to be answered on a document-by-document basis."
Poetry collection contains 168 boxes and an estimated 120,000
documents, mostly letters. On a morning in June the two librarians
most familiar with the collection, Valarie Brocato and Theresa
Smith, look through some of them. Choosing folders at random,
they bring out letters from the New York poet and critic Alfred
Kreymborg and from Vachel Lindsay, the Illinois poet whom Poetry
championed early on. A box of general correspondence yields requests,
inquiries, and submissions from a variety of people. A Mrs. O.
Abernathy from Wichita Falls, Texas, writing on behalf of her
women's club in 1926, asks, "What is considered to be the
greatest prize awarded for poetry in America, and please list
the winners for the past ten years." In April 1934 Stanford
Ackley of Meeker, Ohio, submits some verses (his first ever, he
says) with a plea for advice. "I am especially interested
in motion poetry," he writes. "No one I have ever read
has done a true and complete sea wave rhythm." In the top
left corner an editor has scribbled notes for a reply: "Don't
give up day job." Brocato, who is exhibitions and preservation
manager in Special Collections, takes a democratic view of such
documents. "As archivists, we look at them all equally,"
she says. "The value of the collection is as a whole. We
want to preserve the great poets but the minor ones too. The 'keep-your-day-job
guy,' that's valuable to collect too."
papers seem in good shape. The occasional telegram or carbon copy
is yellow and brittle. A few pieces have been placed in Mylar
folders. "That's probably the most important conservation
step you can take," says Smith. Some problems have been introduced
by previous attempts at conservation. A few documents have been
covered on both sides with tissue paper. "It's not really
the kind of work we would do today," she says, examining
a letter from Kreymborg that is breaking away at the edges. Other
documents have been repaired with Filmoplast, once the archivist's
cellophane tape. When they see it both women wrinkle their noses,
as if a dung beetle has crawled out from under a manuscript. Filmoplast
is still used to repair books in the Library. Unfortunately it
has a tendency to yellow and stiffen and leave stains on the text
it is meant to protect. It has been banished from Special Collections.
physicians, conservationists try first to do no harm. A repair
must be weaker than the original: if something gives, it ought
to be the patch and not the manuscript. A repair must also be
reversible. To repair rips, archivists apply strips of Japanese
tissue glued with water-soluble wheat-starch paste. If future
archivists disdain Japanese tissue they can simply wash it off.
next day they examine the Eliot folder. Some of the dozen or so
pieces in it are encased in Mylar. Others have been sandwiched
in tissue paper. Brocato holds one up and peers at it edgewise.
It is a frail-looking carbon of a letter to Eliot from Harriet
Monroe. "Right now, it's usable," she says. "In
ten or 15 years it's going to start to pucker up. Someone's going
to have to do something with it then."
"Prufrock" looks much as it must have when it went to
the typesetter 87 years ago, although it is dirty, has yellowed
slightly, and has a few small rips along the edges. Notes Brocato,
"It definitely could use dry cleaning," archival code
for rubbing the surface lightly with crumbled erasure. Eventually
"Prufrock" may become one of a dozen or so collection
highlights the Library will place in special storage to restrict
"You can see from the fingerprints that it's obviously a
working collection," Brocato says. "It could be under
glass, but that's not what we're here for. We're here for preservation
and continued access."
of the actual work is being performed by Karen Weiner, a former
English major who spends her days closeted in a small, well-lit
room working her way through the collection piece by piece. By
early June she has reached Box 30 of Major Poets, A-Li. "I'm
trying to get up to a box a day," she says. It's not easy.
"I really fight the temptation to sit and read," she
confesses. Months of tedious work have not ruined the thrill of
handling the documents, which she describes as "the direct
experience of the making of modern poetry."
this is only a fringe benefit. Her real work concerns paper, not
what is written on it. Whenever she comes across a paper that
needs attention, she marks a form and makes a sketch, indicating
the damage. She marks "Yes" for serious problems like
brittle paper, tears in the text, or clumsy repairs from the past.
"Maybe" is for tears that threaten text or for creases
that might tear. "No" means things like stains that
do not obscure text or blank corners coming off.
job is archival triage. Twenty-three pieces in the folder of Laura
Benét of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, are okay. But the next
file, from Stephen Vincent Benét, contains a 1936 Works
Progress Administration press release, announcing a play based
on Benét's poem John Brown's Body, that looks as
if someone had left it in the sun. Weiner gives it a Yes. "If
nothing else, the paper is brittle," she says.
of the Yes pieces will go to a conservator at the project's end.
In the meantime Weiner does lots of little things to improve the
collection. She turns back bent corners, unfolds doubled sheets,
and puts papers into correct order, slipping some between Mylar,
and transferring all the folders into new boxes. As she completes
her work, the Library send the boxes to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,
preservation grants often involve microfilming, since one of their
aims is to make materials more readily available. Preservationists
have argued for funding aspects of preservation beyond microfilming,
yet Chicago's librarians say that microfilming will contribute
to the preservation of the Poetry papers. For one thing,
it gives the librarians the chance to survey the whole collection.
It may also cut down on future use of the collection. "By
letting users use microfilm rather than the originals, it does
take wear and tear off the originals," says Sherry Byrne,
the Library's chief preservationist.
Poetry project will cost a total of $259,000, two-fifths
of which the University is raising from private gifts and grants.
Microfilming and staff expenses will take up most of the money;
what's left over will go toward conservation. Tears might be repaired
with tissue and wheat starch. Acidified paper might be washed
in alkaline water, a process which leaves a buffer that can absorb
new acid. "It's not clear that we will be able to physically
treat every piece in the collection the way we would like to,"
says Schreyer. "I think it's fair to say we won't. But when
we get to the end of the project I feel confident in saying the
collection will be prepared for safe use."
NO ONE KNOWS
the Poetry collection better than the magazine's current
editor, Joseph Parisi, AM'67, PhD'73, who joined the staff of
Poetry in June 1977 and became editor in 1983. Three years
ago he began research for a book of letters from the magazine's
correspondence and spent the next two years traveling to the University
from Chicago's north side. "It was worth the trip,"
he says, "because you always came across something that was
surprising or entertaining or unexpected and valuable."
everyone who has seen the Poetry collection says the same
thing. In their letters, many of the great poets leap vividly
from the page. They are grateful, angry, imperious, stubborn,
and often very funny. "Are we going to be submitted to more
Edward Thomases, babbling about somebody's 'Bee - yew - tee -
ful soul'!" Pound asks Harriet Monroe on Sept. 15, 1914.
"If a man has the elan, the individuality, the guts, he will
write strongly, simply, directly!"
who are all but forgotten still live on the page. Eloise Robinson
worked for the YMCA in Europe during World War I and contributed
both poems and letters to Poetry. In August 1918 she wrote:
wish I might tell you of my visit to the French front, and how
for two nights I slept in a "cave" with seven Frenchmen
and had a hundred bombs dropped on me. Not directly on top,
of course. The nearest hit just in front of the house. And for
five days and nights after that I was taking chocolate to advance
batteries, to men who can never leave their guns.
Patchen was a young poet struggling to survive in the depths of
the Depression. On April 10, 1933, he wrote for advice-and a job:
spent in all about eight months on the road; severe hardship
and paralyzing disappointment have haunted my steps though the
haunts of the homeless in the south and the west.
for art has made it possible for me to endure and hope but I
am growing bitter and discouraged.
and his co-editor, Stephen Young, have selected 500 to 600 letters
from the hundreds of thousands they looked at in the Chicago and
Indiana archives. For those who can't spend years in the archives,
their book will be the next best route to the discoveries that
abound there. Poetry lovers, Parisi says, will be surprised by
the "back and forth" between author and editor that
went into the publication of some of the century's great poetry.
"Just the ordinary readers, even if they're not particularly
interested in poetry, or know much about literature, will be amused
by the book, because it really tells the story of the 20th century."
Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters will be published by
Norton a year from this fall, in time for the magazine's 90th
anniversary. Meanwhile, the correspondence keeps piling up. Each
year Poetry receives 100,000 manuscripts. Gesturing toward four
boxes of unopened mail sitting outside his office, Parisi exclaims,
"These are going to be the collected things of tomorrow!"
as librarians well know, to collect is one thing, to keep is another.
With proper care, says Daniel Meyer, the University's Poetry
collection can last "a long time." Archivists hate to
be pinned down. "It can survive hundreds of years,"
Valerie Brocato ventures. "It's a paper-based collection,
instead of being digital or a collection of seaweed samples. That's
the good part. Paper has great strength, great durability. There's
no reason it can't be here in 1,000 years," with poets' words
and lives still leaping off the page.
Freelance writer Richard Mertens, a student in the Committee on
Social Thought, wrote "A Radical Takes Root" (April/01).