Insanity at the Poetry Foundation

Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Center in Chicago. (Alanscottwalker/WikimediaCommons)
Two of its officials resign after its formal denunciation of systemic racism provokes a furious demand that it do more.

You may not pay much attention to the Poetry Foundation, possibly because you are under the impression that, as the modesty of its name and goals imply, it is a struggling little outfit. Perhaps you picture a staff of a few miserable editors working in some backroom in threadbare cardigans, warming their hands over the only heat they can afford, which is generated by setting fire to their own rejected manuscripts. The Poetry Foundation is, however, more like the Palace of Versailles of cultural nonprofits. Its endowment is fat with a quarter of a billion dollars of assets, according to the New York Times, thanks to the generosity of the late pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, who gave the Chicago foundation $100 million in 2002 before her death in 2009. Those who would like to transfer this fortune from the Poetry Foundation to their own bank accounts are using the favored tool of the day, which is to issue a thundering race-based denunciation. As usual, this tactic is working well.

Until America’s current moment of insanity passes, it would probably be wise for most of those whose positions and livelihoods may be at stake to say nothing, given that warm gestures of outreach and conciliation seem to be the surest way to get yourself canceled. Nonetheless, the leaders of the Poetry Foundation felt a moral duty to speak out against racial injustice, and for this they were, on cue, ridiculed, reviled, and sent packing with a swift boot to the gluteus maximus.

On June 3 the Poetry Foundation announced on its website that it and its periodical Poetry magazine “stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.” Allowing that poets have not yet succeeded in eradicating “institutional racism,” it added, “We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.” It concluded on a helpful note: “We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.”

If you’re thinking that no one could possibly disagree with any of that, you’re underestimating just how disagreeable people are right now. Capillary-exploding fury greeted the statement above, via an open letter dated June 6 and signed by 1,800 people you’ve never heard of. Scores of them are remarkably ungrateful previous or current recipients of the foundation’s largesse. This virtual mob of versifiers, subscribers to Poetry magazine, and assorted random worked-up individuals inveighed against the foundation’s brief note for being wholly inadequate to the task of ending racism, calling it “an insult to the lives and families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other victims of the racist institution of police and white supremacy” as well as “an insult to the lives of your neighbors who have been targeted, brutalized, terrorized, and detained by the Chicago Police.” Further, the letter proclaimed that “the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.” Threatening to withhold its submissions from Poetry magazine, the mob of signatories issued a list of five demands, not counting its call for the immediate resignation of President Henry Bienen and board of trustees chair Willard Bunn III.

In the course of denouncing the Poetry Foundation for not “creating a world that is just and affirming for people of color, disabled people, trans people, queer people, and immigrants,” the authors of the letter offered a hint that the ideal way to placate them would be to turn over all of its money to them: “Ultimately, we dream of a world in which the massive wealth hoarding that underlies the Foundation’s work would be replaced by the redistribution of every cent to those whose labor amassed those funds,” read the letter. Failing that, the angry poets suggested they might settle for “large contributions to organizations” of which they approved, together with “redistribution of wealth toward efforts fostering social justice.”

All of this went on for hundreds of words, raising the question: Aren’t poets supposed to be succinct? Say what you want about bank robbers, but at least they practice the virtue of brevity each time they say “Stick ’em up.” Also, even at their very worst, bank robbers can merely shoot you, not bore you to death.

Since few, these days, can withstand more than one or two social-media jibes before caving in, the Poetry Foundation complied with the demand to throw bodies out the door. Bienen, a former president of Northwestern University, tendered his resignation. Bunn, a former top executive with several commercial banks, resigned as well. The foundation left it up in the air which of the mob’s demands it would next rush to grant. Ruth Lilly’s great-grandfather’s firm, the source of the Poetry Foundation’s wealth, is best known for its blockbuster drug Prozac. Instead of begging for mercy from odious odists, perhaps it should consider heaving pails of its mood-mellowing drugs at the mob. Anything is a better idea than what it has done so far.


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