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The Poetry Wars

Banker John Barr Battles to Bring Poetry to the People. Why Is He Getting So Much Resistance?

Bob Capazzo

The world of American poetry is a dangerous place. Invective flies like wineglasses at a party gone off the rails. Not that anybody bothers to duck. Bloodied and bruised, the combatants return fire, their words shaped into gleaming rhetorical arrows that intend to do harm. Thus we have (to cite one recent example) William Logan calling Franz Wright’s otherwise acclaimed Walking to Martha’s Vineyard “Hallmark cards for the damned” and the poet himself a “sad-sack punk.” And Wright then promising Logan “the crippling beating you so masochistically desire.” Ah, poets. Perhaps they have always been this way: It was Horace of ancient Rome who christened them “the touchy tribe” and A. J. Liebling of modern New York who said, “Show me a poet and I’ll show you a shit.”

Amusing as poetry’s little dustups may be, they’re like shouts in the wind: Nobody knows, nobody cares. Well, that’s not quite true. Every decade or so a full-fledged war erupts, spilling outside poetry’s hothouse world and into the mainstream culture. These wars always focus on the same anxiety: the diminished standing of poetry in America’s artistic life. “Who Killed Poetry?” Joseph Epstein, editor of the American Scholar, asked in 1988. “Can Poetry Matter?” the poet Dana Gioia wondered in 1991. Both essays, especially the latter, published in the Atlantic Monthly, set off heated debate, and to this day they cannot be mentioned at poetry conferences without risk of flying glass.

The latest such essay was written by an investment banker and poet named John Barr. Published in Poetry magazine last September, Barr’s essay, titled “American Poetry in the New Century,” left the poetry community feeling as if the top of its head were taken off. That’s an image Emily Dickinson used to describe the sensation of reading great poetry. Indeed, many judged Barr’s essay to be the mind-opening experience the author intended — but many others felt only the cut of the skull saw. Are poets themselves to blame for public neglect of their art, as Barr suggests? Is there really “fatigue, something stagnant about the poetry being written today”? Has poetry retreated into the ivory tower, its methods too eggheaded, its concerns too esoteric? Is poetry too much of a slog?

The war was on. This wasn’t just any old poetry war, however. A perfect storm of circumstance would make this one different — bigger, wilder, meaner. Perhaps more necessary, too. “John’s essay articulated very clearly the rift between contemporary poets and the general reader,” Christian Wiman, Poetry’s editor, said by e-mail. “I do think the debate that has resulted is very valuable for poetry. John believes its place in the culture might be much more prominent and enrich many more people’s lives. With this I certainly agree.”

On weekends Barr, who is married with three grown children, can be found at his woodsy estate in backcountry Greenwich, a domain of undulating lawns, gravel footpaths and picture-book ponds.

A stone house covered with ivy sits on the brow of a hill, and next to it a detached study whose walls are full of books, chiefly by twentieth-century American poets. One day in summer, Barr sat for a photograph and an interview. He was a gracious host at a turbulent time. In February the New Yorker, picking up on Barr’s essay, had run an unflattering profile of him and the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which he heads and which publishes Poetry. That media bomb was quickly followed by another: a page-long slap-down of the New Yorker piece in the New York Times Book Review — an event so unusual that even political blogs like the Huffington Post took notice. Then Time magazine weighed in: “Even if you don’t agree with Barr’s solutions,” wrote Lev Grossman, the magazine’s book critic, “he has at least admitted a fundamental and painful cultural fact: that something has changed, that the great voices of our time no longer speak in verse.”

Thus John Barr found himself today’s most controversial figure in American poetry. It is not a position he relishes. “No, I didn’t expect this,” he said somberly. “I did not expect that the passions on both sides would be so strong, so widespread.”

But there’s a back story, and it involves a staggering sum of money. Five years ago, the reclusive Indianapolis billionaire Ruth Lilly, heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals fortune, changed the poetry landscape with a wave of her hand: She gave $200 million to the esteemed but then-penniless Poetry magazine. Founded in 1912 by a Chicago art critic named Harriet Monroe, Poetry’s mission was to publish the best poems available in English, whatever the school or style. Its success is legend. The magazine was first to publish T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, and first to popularize Robert Frost in his home country. Poetry later helped establish a new generation of poet geniuses, among them Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and James Merrill.

Christian Wiman, who was hired in 2003, has blown away the patina of dust that had settled on the magazine before Lilly’s gift kicked in. Fans point to the lively essays (Barr’s a case in point), the no-nonsense book reviews, the sometimes raucous letters; and many poets say there’s no better showcase for their work. Under Wiman, Poetry’s circulation has nearly tripled, to about 30,000.

Of Ruth Lilly, little is known beyond her philanthropic work. She is ninety-two years old and quite frail. For many years she suffered a depression so severe she had to be confined to hospitals; only in the 1980s, thanks to the Lilly drug Prozac, did she win a reprieve from her illness. During Lilly’s dark years — she had no children and her only marriage ended in divorce — her chief consolation seems to have been writing poetry. In a poignant twist, it is now known that she submitted verse to Poetry for years without success. The editors, however, always returned Lilly’s efforts with a gracious personal note, and perhaps this explains, at least in part, why she chose to reward a magazine that consistently rejected her.

Lilly’s gift seemed to disorient the poetry crowd. Many poets take an antiestablishment pride in their field’s purity, its utter lack of commercial motive. Certainly, nobody who writes poetry expects to make money at it. (Perhaps five American poets, led by Billy Collins, could live decently off book sales alone, and most poets teach to make ends meet.) Given poetry’s suspicion of lucre, some criticism of Lilly’s gift was inevitable. One poet called it “drug money,” and a respected editor declared it “bad philanthropy,” as if Poetry might suffocate under sacks of cash. On the whole, though, the gift was received warmly, if a bit nervously. What would Poetry do with all that money? Would poets now sharpen their elbows and chase after fat, star-making grants? Or were there better ways to spend the largest literary endowment in history?

These were serious questions. To begin to answer them, Poetry’s board organized itself into the Poetry Foundation, and in February 2004 hired John Barr as president. Barr, trim, sun-burnished and youthfully white-haired, seems a perfect match for the job. As Time magazine noted, he is “equally at home serving art and mammon.” He would use these talents, and Ruth Lilly’s millions, to attempt a feat of heavy lifting: to bring poetry — once a staple of newspapers, magazines and school curricula, once recited by workmen in the street — back into the cultural mainstream.

John Barr betrays neither the quirkiness nor the spleen that poets are famous for. Relaxed and gregarious (to a fault, one might conclude after reading the New Yorker piece), his social instincts seem more those of an executive than an artist. Barr worked at Morgan Stanley for eighteen years, finally as a managing director, then started Barr Devlin, an investment banking firm dealing in gas and electricity. He also founded the Natural Gas Clearinghouse, now called Dynegy, an energy marketer. Business life at its most hectic never subdued Barr’s poetic impulse.

When a book of poetry gets going, he rises at three in the morning to write, likening that quiet hour to “looking out a window and seeing a fresh-fallen snow with no tracks on it.” Barr’s love of poetry caught fire at Harvard and never waned — not during his five years in the navy or, more particularly, his three sojourns to Vietnam. If anything, his experience of the non-poetry world has nourished his poetry. The War Zone (1989) is perhaps the clearest example: Fourteen years in the making, it viewed the naval side of the war through a panoramic lens, much as William Carlos Williams did his native soil in the celebrated Paterson. Barr’s sixth and latest book, Grace: An Epic Poem (1999), is the fictive adventure of a gardener-poet, but it draws heavily on Barr’s knowledge of sailing and the Caribbean. It is in Grace that Barr wrote: “Poetry is too important to be polite about.”

Now that the Poetry Foundation was rich and powerful, all eyes turned to Barr, up on the high wire. What would he do? What would he say? The purists, chiefly academics, were suspicious from the start, citing Barr’s Wall Street pedigree. (In fact, businessmen-poets are nothing new: T.S. Eliot was a banker and a publisher, and Wallace Stevens an insurance executive in Hartford.) Then came his now-famous essay; it did not appear so much as detonate. “Poetry is missing and unmissed” in the big picture. It suffers from “malaise,” “stagnation,” “a disjunction from public life,” “a climate of careerism” in which poets, “lacking a general audience,” “write for one another.” “Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials,” he wrote. “The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor — and I stress this quality — entertaining.”

Then he offered prescriptions. Most memorable among them is his exhortation to seek out fresh experience, to “live broadly, write boldly,” further implying that university living might be shrinking poetry’s ken: Poets become teachers who teach poets who become teachers. As Barr put it, “Will the next Walt Whitman be an MFA graduate? Somehow it seems hard to imagine.” He does allow that not all great poets have lived broadly or interestingly. Emily Dickinson, the reclusive belle of Amherst, is the obvious example.

Barr rejects the notion that a gadget-mad public should be faulted, even a little, for poetry’s decline. The art form must compete like any other. “The human mind is a marketplace,” he wrote, “especially when it comes to selecting one’s entertainment.” Entertainment? Barr is foxily aware of the word’s vulgar repute in poetry circles and appears to want to reclaim it. “I don’t mean knee-slapping, ha-ha entertainment,” he said when asked to clarify. “I mean the entertainment of high art.” He mentioned a few good poets from some years back who were both entertaining and accessible (to use another vulgar word): Homer, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

But Barr is realistic. He neither wants poetry to be simple nor expects it to cut into American Idol’s ratings. Noting poetry’s relative complexity, he wrote in his essay, “Every poem implies its audience; our goal is to get that poem in front of its largest intended audience.”

The blogosphere greeted Barr’s essay with howls of indignity. Angry letters poured into Poetry. Some of these critics denied that poetry is in decline at all, pointing to certain irrefutably good poets and to the large number of poetry books published today (thanks to the MFA glut) — but avoiding the fact that even those good poets just don’t sell. Other critics took violent issue with the “live broadly” dictum, though they had to distort Barr’s intent to do so: “Emily Dickinson didn’t need to shoot animals to make her verses,” wrote one miffed poet.

“I didn’t say some of the things people said I said,” Barr noted with a wry smile. “I don’t think formal study of how to write is an enemy of good writing. But there are a lot of poems that have been written about writing poems. That suggests the rest of the experienced world is not getting in there. My point is that there’s a relationship between how you live and what you write. To me, that relationship is obvious.” The great poets, for Barr, are profoundly alive to human endeavor. “The MFA experience raises the level of craftsmanship, but it may not have much to do with the mystery and magic that happen in a poem.”

he chief knock against Barr, however, concerned poets’ perceptions of the sort of creature he is. His mere mention of a poetry marketplace confirmed their view that Barr isn’t one of them but rather some sort of crass money guy trampling through their sacred preserve. The New Yorker piece, titled “The Moneyed Muse,” by poet and editor Dana Goodyear, sympathized with this view. Goodyear arrayed snippy, largely unsupported quotes not only against Barr (“horrifying,” “This is the consumerization of poetry”), but also against the Poetry Foundation and its new initiatives. These include an award-winning website; prizes for humorous poetry and for “neglected masters”; a campaign to place quality poetry in popular magazines; a national high school recital bee; and the naming of a children’s poet laureate. (The youth programs arose out of a survey finding that people tend to discover poetry when young or not at all. Penny Barr, Barr’s wife, came up with the children’s laureate idea.)

Those initiatives apparently strike critics as plebeian or tacky. J. D. McClatchy, a poet who edits the Yale Review, complained to Goodyear, “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.”

As a whole, the New Yorker piece reads like an attack by paper cut: a thousand tiny wounds inflicted but not a single voice suggesting what Barr and his foundation might do differently. As poet David Orr noted in his Times rejoinder, “[Goodyear] quotes many poets making critical remarks about Those People and All That Money ... [Her] article has a strangely punitive cast.”

Barr, for his part, is dismayed by Goodyear’s piece but tries not to make too much of it. “I think it was a missed opportunity,” he said. “If I had been writing the article and had that much space — over six thousand words — I would have thought, ‘What a great opportunity to talk about this grand experiment.’ A boatload of money comes into the middle of a small, undernourished art form: Will it do good, or will it do the opposite? What do they worry about? Is the foundation doing its job right or wrong? Instead, it chose to talk about what color shirt I wore to make a speech.”

Readers of the New Yorker piece would not know the debate is a two-sided affair, or that Poetry’s letters column, though “full of rebuke” to Barr, also offered more than “a couple of gestures” of support. One of those gestures came from Anne Stevenson, a well-regarded poet, critic and biographer: “The fury stirred up by John Barr’s considered and polite critique (never a jeremiad) suggests that it is justified. It’s natural for people who are criticized to protest, but these professionals protest too much.”

Yes, but even the sucker punches enliven the debate. One might wish that poets, who set so much store by verbal precision, would debate Barr’s assertions — some of them are quite debatable — rather than invoke his Wall Street past. But they’re only human. “Poets live to write, and they care incredibly seriously about their work,” Barr said. “That’s why the art form provokes such strong passions — and not just about my essay.” At least these passions are breaking into the open, where untapped audiences may await. And that, it seems, is a victory both for Barr and for poetry.