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In 1933, when Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas of “all the little magazines…which have died to make verse free,” Poet Lore was already in its 44th year of continuous publication. Sixty-eight years later, it’s still thriving. “We’ve touched three centuries,” noted co-executive editor Rick Cannon at the magazine’s 112th-anniversary celebration on Nov. 18 at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, “and we are the oldest poetry journal that we know of.”
Started as a monthly in 1889 by Philadelphia bluestockings Helen Archibald Clarke and Charlotte Endymion Porter, Poet Lore initially emphasized criticism over original verse, with lavish essays devoted to the works of Shakespeare and the Brownings. Clarke and Porter sold the magazine in 1903, and over the subsequent decades, the magazine underwent many ownership and format changes and “descended into sentimental verse,” says Allan Lefcowitz, artistic director of the Writer’s Center. But the journal enjoyed a second genesis in 1977, he says, when D.C.’s Heldref Publications became the publisher and the Writer’s Center began doing its typesetting and design work. The center took over publication of Poet Lore in 1987.
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Since coming to Washington, the magazine has featured poetry and criticism by such nationally and locally notable writers as Linda Pastan, William Meredith, Paul Zimmer, and Hilary Tham. But, its editors say, they emphasize powerful verse over powerful names; Cannon, who shares Poet Lore editing duties with Elizabeth Poliner, notes that much of the work in the magazine is by new writers.
In 1992, when Sally Rosen Kindred, then an MFA student at the University of Maryland, decided to begin submitting her poetry to literary magazines, she chose Poet Lore. She was thrilled when the magazine accepted some of those first poemsalthough, she notes wryly, “there were many other rejections to come.” Kindred was the first of three regional poets (with Thorpe Moeckel and Gary Stein) to present work at the anniversary reception; she read her poem “Raisin”: “the dark mean fruit, put there/by your mother’s hands…As your teeth break the skin/what weeps forth is fog and mud.” “Raisin” typifies what Poet Lore’s editors look for: work with “an implosive quality” and “wholeness to it,” says Cannon, who also teaches English at D.C.’s Gonzaga College High School. “‘Raisin’ seems to ball into that little wizened fruit all the anguish of a child’s first break with home,” he says. “Line after line, [Kindred] targets that misery….It batters you, really.”
Poet Lore’s next issueVolume 96, No. 4represents the end of another era for the magazine; in spring 2002, it will move from quarterly to twice-yearly publication and from 80 to 120 pages per issue. Publisher and editor offer left-brain/right-brain explanations for the change. “The bigger issue will draw more attention to the magazine and have a longer shelf life,” says Lefcowitz. “Also, we will save about 50 percent of its annual cost while still fulfilling the mission of bringing poets, especially new and exciting poets, to the attention of our audience.”
“From time to time,” says Cannon, “a publication will molt and change itself a bit. What won’t change is our commitment to quality…and we may, after an experimental year, return to the four-issue format.”
So Poet Lore’s 113th year will offer Volume 97. But why isn’t it Volume 113? “The reason is lost in the mists of history,” says Lefcowitz with a smile. Pamela Murray Winters