The Home That Harriet Built

America didn’t really care about poetry in 1911.

America cared about Mary Pickford’s acting and Irving Berlin’s music. But not poetry. Poetry was left out in the cold. Unread, undiscussed, unwelcomed. And most Americans moved through life without a thought about it.

Except for a hazel-eyed woman from Chicago named Harriet Monroe. And fortunately for the poets of America, Ms. Monroe didn’t move through life like everyone else.

Ms. Monroe, who came from pioneer stock, was a mountain climber, Chicago Tribune art critic, a poet herself. But she’d started out as a lonely child in Chicago who found a home in the books of Byron, Shelley, Shakespeare. Since then, Ms. Monroe had moved through life caring about poetry.

And, at the age of 51, she was tired of poetry being left out of America. Poetry needed a home of its own. And since no one else was building it, she decided she would.

So, Ms. Monroe – a woman of small stature and large conviction who liked tall mountains and exploring new places – knocked on doors, mailed letters, raised $5,000. And on September 23, 1912, she sent the first issue of Poetry Magazine to newsstands. Poetry would now be brought in from the cold.

By which Ms. Monroe meant not just poetry from known poets. But all good poetry. The magazine would print “the best English verse which is being written today,” she affirmed, “regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” Good poetry had been left out for too long to face another barrier to coming in.

In June 1915, Poetry published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by then-unknown T.S. Eliot. Later pages would be filled by Langston Hughes, E.E. Cummings, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins.

And these pages were published – are still published today – because when there was no home for poetry, Harriet Monroe built one.

At the age of 75, Ms. Monroe died of a cerebral hemorrhage on top of a mountain in Peru. But her work outlives the confines of one lifetime.

Which is what can happen if you don’t move through life like everyone else.

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