Tuesday, 13 February 2007

What's the Poetry Foundation doing with all that money?

After Ruth Lilly (pictured) gave over a hundred million dollars to the Chicago-based journal Poetry in 2002, the little magazine had to scramble in order to build itself into the kind of organization that could use that kind of money. One of their first moves was to restructure themselves into The Poetry Foundation, a charitable group with the aim of promoting poetry to the general public. They hired John Barr, a gifted businessman, questionable poet, and Flintstonian blowhard, to be their president. But what exactly have they been doing for the past five years? The New Yorker sent Dana Goodyear to find out.

“Money doesn’t solve problems, it rearranges problems, and a lot of money creates a kaleidoscope of possibilities,” J. D. McClatchy, a poet and the editor of The Yale Review, said. “The aura of mediocrity has settled like a fog over the business of the foundation. The new awards, for example. It’s not the winners who trouble me, it’s the categories. Children’s poetry? Funny poetry? If those are a way for the foundation to carve a niche for itself, it’s a shallow one and too low down on the wall. It signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal. Ironically, they risk marginalizing themselves by appealing to people who think of the ‘Prairie Home Companion’ as high art. It’s the culture of sidebars, poems suitable for the fronts of tote bags. The foundation seems to want to promote poetry, the way you’d promote cereal or a sitcom.”

On the one hand, I love it that there's an organization out there dedicated to promoting poetry and with the resources to do it. And I have to confess that I often buy, read, and enjoy their magazine. But still, this article makes me wonder, are they making the right decisions? A "funny poem" contest hardly seems an appropriate legacy for the magazine that helped create the landscape of modern English-language poetry.

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