POET LORE: An Astonishing History

As Poets & Writers Magazine has pointed out, Poet Lore is as old as the Eiffel Tower, The Wall Street Journal, and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Here's a brief look at its story.

In 1889, two brilliant young literary scholars—Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke—set out to create a journal that would (in their words): "bring Life and Letters into closer touch with each other…in a new spirit that considers literature as an exponent of human evolution."

With the launch of Poet Lore, they began a far-ranging, broad-minded, and passionate conversation about literature that was also a conversation about life in their time and beyond their time. They began by exploring the work of Shakespeare and Browning but soon opened their pages to new world writers—featuring more drama than poetry at first, and moving, over time, beyond North America and Europe to Asia, South America, and the Middle East. They published many of the great poets and playwrights of their era, often presenting them in English to American readers who’d never heard their names.

In recent years, we've pored over the Poet Lore archives at the Library of Congress, starting at the beginning in 1889.  In those early issues—tucked in among provocative essays, copious book reviews, and scholarly commentaries—is the work of such luminaries as Tagore, Gorky, Mistral, Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov (we came across the entire texts of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” and Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” plays that are still being performed to packed houses). And in the back pages of three successive issues in 1892, we found the ads Walt Whitman himself placed for his “completed” Leaves of Grass.

Traveling through the decades was exhilarating and eerie. Most of the poetry we read seemed to be of and for its historical moment so that we felt as if we were eavesdropping on voices that never addressed us directly—but other poems blindsided us with their immediacy. We stopped being archivists and became readers. Discerning the difference between fashion and authenticity is the challenge we face as editors today—a challenge we’re unlikely to meet, being creatures of our own time and place as poets and as critics.  Still, we read submissions each week in search of language that stops us in our tracks—poems that aren’t merely of our time but might actually illuminate and outlast it. 

If Poet Lore has a character that’s remained constant across generations of editors, it’s not a shared aesthetic but an openness to discovery. And in that way, we think it’s true to say that Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke’s founding principles have guided the journal’s editorial stewardship all this time.  In the years we've worked together as an editorial team, many poets we know and admire have told us that their first published poems appeared in Poet Lore. What these poets have in common isn't a way of writing. What they have in common is the fact that an editor at Poet Lore read their early work with the respect it deserved.

Please join us today—subscribe, submit, and become part of Poet Lore's rich, unfolding history. 

                                                                                                               — Jody Bolz & E. Ethelbert Miller, Editors


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