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  Written by
  Richard Mertens

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Letter by Letter
Box 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.

IN 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.

He 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 the calendar.

PHOTO:  The paper may be brittle but the words are fresh:  Writing to Poetry's founding editor, Harriet Monroe Langston Hughes explains his use de for the:  "I am merely trying to give a suggestion of dialect.  Not at all my attempt to reproduce it accurately." The 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 The poem had gone unpublished in Britain, where one editor called it "absolutely insane."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:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table….

"Prufrock" 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 stumped me.… 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.

Today 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!"

Eliot's 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.

It 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.

PHOTO:  Writing to Monroe's successor, George Dillon, in 1938, Ezra Pound plays devil's advocate:  "I enclose at note intended to stir up the young."POETRY, 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Poetry's 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."

LIKE GREAT POETRY 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.

Paper, 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.

The 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.

But 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."

The 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."

The 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.

Like 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.

The 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."

The "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 their use.
"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."

Much 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."

But 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.

Her 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.

Some 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, for microfilming.

Federal 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.

The 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."

PHOTO:  No one knows the Poetry collection better than the magazine's current editor, Joseph Parisi, AM'67, PhD'73, who's at work on a book of letter from the magazine's correspondence, to be published next fall.PROBABLY 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."

Almost 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!"

Other 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:

I 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.

Kenneth 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:

…have 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.…My feeling for art has made it possible for me to endure and hope but I am growing bitter and discouraged.

Parisi 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."

Dear 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!"

But 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).

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