America’s oldest poetry journal celebrates 125 years of great verse

Poet Lore, published in Bethesda, Md., was founded in 1889.
Poet Lore, published in Bethesda, Md., was founded in 1889.

If, as Shelley claimed, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” what does that make poetry editors? Those literary saints toil away in back rooms, far more unacknowledged than Shelley’s heroes. And yet editors make poetry possible for the rest of us.

Case in point: Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry journal, is celebrating its 125th anniversary. During that long tenure, its editors have offered early encouragement to Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Carl Phillips, U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey and many other now well-known writers.

Current co-editors Jody Bolz and Ethelbert Miller — both accomplished Washington-area poets — took over the biannual magazine in 2002. They open each issue with a brief introduction and then arrange the six dozen or so poems that follow in what they call “a conversation with each other.” Famous names mingle freely with debut authors.

“Ethelbert and I have no ‘first readers,’” Bolz says. “We read everything that comes in” — about 1,000 poems a month — “and choose maybe 60 poems to discuss at our editorial meetings, reading them aloud to one another, before settling on the 12 to 15 we’ll accept. If there’s no music when we’re reading to each other, we can hear the thud.”

Miller says, “Our vision is linked to our ability to listen and present the diverse voices that continue to sing in this nation and beyond. I see our magazine upholding tradition while being as daring as Monk, Parker or Miles. We embrace the new without fear or regret.”

Listening for that rare music amid a cacophony of dullness is what the magazine’s critical success depends on. “We select the poems that make us forget we’re editors,” Bolz says, “poems that engage us as readers because they’re unsettled and unsettling in some deeply authentic way. We’re not interested in cleverness or fashion or self-conscious edginess. We’re interested in art.”

The current issue of Poet Lore (Spring 2014).
The current issue of Poet Lore (Spring 2014).

And their labor doesn’t stop at the point of acceptance. “We want the best work, not the most polished work,” Bolz says. “We’ll often take an ambitious, authentic poem that’s rough around the edges and work through revisions with the poet.”

Clearly, they’re both evangelists for verse, just the kind of true believers to keep an old journal vibrant. “Poems are more necessary than ever in this age of distraction,” Bolz says. “Poetry can engage a reader in a way no other language does, which is why people turn to it at the most important moments in their lives — at weddings and christenings and coming of age ceremonies and funerals, and in times of national crisis, too. History offers a record of events, but poetry has always offered a record of human feeling.”

Asked to name a  poet they’re most proud of publishing recently, Bolz and Miller immediately name Christopher Presfield, who spent 38 years in prison. His poems arrived in the mail handwritten on lined paper. But that didn’t matter. They read them. His series “Elegies for the Fallen” appears in the current issue.

Despite the considerable expense of physical publication and the lure of the Web, the editors are committed to remaining a bound journal. “I want people to smell Poet Lore when they first get it,” Miller says. “I want people to take this magazine to bed and to reach for it in the middle of the night. I want people to touch a page and not a screen. Place Poet Lore next to the fountain pen. After all the e-mail, I want folks to still collect stamps and read our magazine.”

And Bolz points to the unique advantages of paper: “In print we can offer visual adjacency (poems on facing pages) and a broad narrative arc (in the way we sequence the poems).”

The editors are planning a special 125th anniversary issue this fall along with a gala on Sept. 15 at the Folger Library. Bolz notes that this is a particularly appropriate setting “because Poet Lore’s founders, Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter, were Shakespeare scholars who left their archives to the Folger.”

For the past 25 years, Poet Lore has been published by the nonprofit Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. “Without a publisher willing to support it for its cultural value — a value that doesn’t appear on any spreadsheet — no poetry journal would survive,” Bolz says.

To subscribe to Poet Lore ($25 for two years), click here.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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