The Press: Corner in PoetryMonday, Nov. 21, 1955
"Poetry," said William Wordsworth, "has never brought in enough to buy shoestrings." Neither has Poetry (circ. 5,000). In all its 43 years as a bellwether of U.S. belles-lettres, while printing such "firsts" as T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Carl Sandburg's Chicago, the monthly has struggled along with account books that would never scan. Last July Poetry seemed finally about to die. But last week, in poetry's biggest rescue operation since the Greeks went after Helen, Poetry piled up enough money to buy a carload of shoestrings.
The hero of the rescue was Chicago's Tycoon J. (for Joseph) Patrick Lannan, 50, whose enthusiasm for the poets' corner has been obscured until now by his zest for cornering corporate stocks (TIME July 25). Yet for years, Lannan has wooed the muse with unpublished verse and unpublicized donations to Poetry. When he learned that the magazine might succumb to an unpaid printer's bill he determined to give it all the benefits of high-pressure, big-business promotion. "I could have just given them $25,000 " he explained, "but that would have been the easy way."
Philistines. Instead, Lannan launched a thousand VIPs in a Poetry-saving drive He persuaded Robert Frost to come to Chicago to read his poetry as a prelude to a $50-a-plate champagne supper and literary auction this week, then lined up guests and sponsors to pay for the supper so that all the receipts would go to Poetry. He ran afoul of a few Philistines. Publisher Bennett Cerf refused to kick in declaring roundly that "Poetry is dead " but when Lannan let that be known among the literati, Cerf came around. Louis Untermeyer thought the whole idea vulgar" and Poetry not worth saving. ("He's nothing but an anthologist anyway," sniffed Lannan.) One Manhattan lawyer coldly refused to help, in the apparent belief that Poet Frost was some kind of subversive. "Don't you know there's a cold war on?" he asked in an angry letter.
But Lannan got impressive support elsewhere. Carl Sandburg called him "the St. John the Baptist that poets have been looking for since Harriet Monroe [the magazine's founder] died"—and agreed to do a fund-raising reading next year. Among the sponsors for the supper: Pierre du Pont III, William J. ("Wild Bill") Donovan, Daniel R. Topping, Charles Edison. Conspicuously absent was Adlai Stevenson's ex-wife Ellen Borden Stevenson, longtime Poetry Patroness who resigned from the magazine's board 18 months ago.
Lady Chatterley's Lover. The guest list swelled until Lannan's caterers had to send to their Manhattan supplier for more champagne, donated by Madison Square Garden President James Norris and Sports Promoter Art Wirtz. After supper, TV's Bergen ($64,000 Question) Evans auctioned off letters and manuscripts by such literary titans as John Masefield, George Bernard Shaw. Thomas Wolfe, Harry S. Truman. Lannan put up his own copy (published in Florence in a limited 1928 edition) of Lady Chatterley's Lover. In all, Lannan estimated the day's take at $25,000.That covered Poetry's annual deficit—and Lannan plans to make his fund-raising drive an annual event. Beyond that, he sees the task of putting the slim, pale monthly on a moneymaking basis. First step will be to hire a firm of management consultants to study the magazine's operation, possible markets and the future of poetry in the U.S. "Just as you would," explained a Lannan associate, "if you were thinking of buying into a machinery plant."