Changing the Landscape of Verse ; the $100 Million Question: Can Christian Wiman Make You Appreciate Poetry?

Article excerpt

Poet and editor Christian Wiman admits that he is "terrible with money." He has never had a lot of it and is careful about what he spends. So when he began his current job almost a year ago, he hesitated before making his first big purchase: a box of paper clips. The irony here is that Mr. Wiman edits Poetry magazine, the richest literary publication in the United States.

Wiman's unease with money is just one example of how he defies expectation. As editor of Poetry, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world ($35 a year), he holds one of the most influential - and enviable - literary jobs. Everywhere he goes, poets want something from him. Yet when a guest arrives at his Chicago office, the first thing he does is offer her a cup of tea and apologize that there isn't anything else.

This impression - of unexpected contradictions - reveals a lot about a man who, at 37, is quietly reshaping the literary landscape. Since he began at Poetry, Wiman has already restored an energy and edge that had been missing for some time. The poems are sharper, more finely crafted, with opening lines that crackle. The prose, likewise, is more incisive and readable (www.poetrymagazine.org).

Wiman says his goals are twofold: to publish the best poetry being written and to "create a place for everyone." To achieve the latter, he's introduced several features to the 92-year-old journal, which helped launch the careers of major poets, such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg.

These new additions include "debates" by poets - "Is Garrison Keillor good for poetry?" - and editorials in which Wiman raises pointed questions, such as: "Should poetry survive? What is the point of persisting with this art at this time?"

Future issues will also contain commentaries by nonpoets. Journalist Michael Lewis, for example, will explain why he doesn't like contemporary verse.

That frank, self-critical tone marks a major shift for Poetry - circulation 11,000 - which is trying to attract a wider, more general audience to the magazine and the art form. The famous $100 million gift from heiress Ruth Lilly in 2002 vaulted the magazine into the public imagination briefly. But now Wiman and his colleagues at the Poetry Foundation, the magazine's publisher, must turn all that attention - and all that money - into something deeper and more lasting. If he succeeds, he'll have found the genre's holy grail and become the most unexpected of heroes.

When his appointment was announced in May 2003, he was unknown to many in the literary world. Some poets wondered why a more seasoned writer, such as F.D. Reeve, wasn't offered the post. Wiman, however, represents a new generation, a fresh way of thinking.

As a teen he worked in Texas oil fields, and in college he studied economics until his junior year when he began to write seriously and switched to an English major. After graduation, he held several teaching posts, including one at Stanford University. But he also traveled the globe, living briefly in England, Mexico, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic. These experiences add depth to his writing and shape his open-minded perspective.

That's crucial, say people at the Poetry Foundation, because no other literary organization has ever had the challenge of deciding how to spend so much money. What is the best way to support writers and build a long-term audience? …