Making Modernism

"Valeria" and Other Poems, 1891

Privately printed by A. C. McClurg and Company in 1891 and offered for public sale in 1892, Harriet Monroe’s Valeria and Other Poems was initially well received by critics. This presentation copy belonged to Edward Freiberger, the dramatic critic at the Chicago Inter Ocean who had published his own collection of poetry, entitled Wayside Pansies, in 1888. Monroe’s inscription to Freiberger reads,

You ask me for a word or two –
I hate to say you nay;
Yet if it be not wise and true
You’ll wish my word away.
‘Tis better, sure, not to abuse
Your most beguiling trust;
So plead no more – I must refuse.
I’m sorry, but I must.

Though Monroe is best known for founding the experimental magazine Poetry in 1912, her playful inscription to Freiberger highlights her connection to the nineteenth-century poetic practices that her magazine would later denounce. Like the rest of the poems in Valeria, Monroe’s inscription uses conventional forms (here, common meter) and ideas to participate in a larger poetic culture of public performance and print circulation.

Indeed, Monroe’s career as a poet was built on public performances of her work that led to its republication in Chicago’s many newspapers. She was a staple in the Inter Ocean throughout the 1890s thanks to the cantata she composed for the dedication of Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building in Chicago in 1889 and the ode she composed for the opening of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, both of which Monroe included in Valeria and Other Poems. Snippets of these public poems were frequently reprinted as part of critical reviews of Valeria, and many critics singled out the World’s Fair ode in particular as proof of Monroe’s poetic talents.

Monroe’s early poetic successes are often seen as discontinuous with the later modernist aesthetic she promoted in Poetry, but they informed Monroe’s vision for her magazine in important ways. Monroe frequently argued that Poetry was necessary because it gave poets an organized way to reach their audience in the same way that Sullivan’s Auditorium Building brought together auditors for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and that the Art Institute of Chicago provided a public venue for visual artists to display their work. Though Monroe’s Auditorium cantata and World’s Fair ode have fallen out of critical favor, their performance in civic spaces devoted to the arts and their recirculation in newspapers with wide readerships provided the impetus for the foundation of one of the most important mouthpieces for poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Monroe’s light verse to a minor poet and critic like Freiberger, far from being disconnected from her later endeavors, shows how crucial these early poetic experiences and networks were to her development as a champion of modernism.

-Erin Kappeler, Missouri State University

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