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Poetry (Jan 2013)

Chicago-based Magazine Poetry is one of the landmarks of global poetry publishing. Founded by Harriet Munroe in 1912 – as it says on every title page – it championed modernism in the US and has published virtually every significant poet of the last century. The bequest of pharmaceuticals heiress Ruth Lilley in 2003 of over $100m to the foundation that published the magazine has turned it into a global powerhouse, with a beautiful building and library, fabulous website ( and (of course) still the flagship monthly magazine all supported by professional full time staff.

The January issue contains – as usual – about 80 pages overall (excluding adverts) of which 30 are pages of high-standard poetry. It is all by established names, the majority of them American. Of the selection in this issue there are none that I would class as ‘experimental’ and none that are down-the-line exercises in established form either – the poetry tends to cluster in the area of the craftily loose modern style. Of 11 poets in this issue 9 are American, 2 are British, 8 are university lecturers in creative writing (1 retired), one other is a lecturer in social science, one a freelance creative educator and one a boatbuilder. Don’t get me wrong, these guys are good and most editions of the magazine contain something that takes the top of your head off (not quite for me in this issue, although the poems I like best are Matthew Nienow’s – he’s the boatbuilder). However there is a sense of the American creative writng industry talking to itself in these pages.

The prose tends to emphasise that effect. It is always of high quality and is usually a good education for us parochial Brits in some major aspect of the US poetry scene. This issue devotes 20 pages to a series of ‘antagonisms’ poets talking about the great poets of the past they don’t like – light stuff, fun in its way, focussed on the obvious faults of the great dead (ee cummings mawkish sentiment and frequent misfires, Steven’s fondness of the obscure polysyllable, Thomas’ love of his own voice). The two longer prose peices are appreciations of Celan (mainly) and a kind of scatter gun notebook the thesis of which frankly escapes me. To be fair this is some of the weakest prose I’ve seen in poetry for some time, there are usually a few very well thought through reviews of major US poets, though the tendency to offer space to the random jottings of Poetry’s Literary mates is something I’d urge they get a grip on (happens in our home grown PN Review too).

Poetry is a must-read, then, if not a showcase for US poetry red in tooth and claw. In terms of value, at $47 for 11 issues posted to the UK for a year – £2.80 a copy – it cannot be bettered (even with bulk rates they must be paying close to a pound just to get it to you). Take out the three year sub and you get each copy for under £2.50. The only downside is that at a copy a month (apart from Christmas) you have to keep your reading up to speed.