April 20, 2010

Symposium probes Chicago’s poetic tradition

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When I first walked into the Special Collections Research Center at the Regenstein Library for the Chicago Poetry Symposium last Saturday, I got the impression of a quietly reflective attitude throughout the room—a disposition born, no doubt, out of the dialogues which took place there. The first Symposium took place in 2008, and it has striven ever since to bring consistently engaging speakers each year to discuss a variety of themes, which was certainly the case for this year’s event. David Pavelich, the bibliographer for “Modern Poetry” at the University library, introduced the event as he has in the past, giving some substantive background information of the event and a foreword to the topics of the day. For the rest of the afternoon, a mix of professors, graduate students, and writers discussed four poets and editors from Chicago history: Sterling Plumpp, Alice Notley, Margaret Anderson, and Henry Rago.

It is this focus on Chicago-rooted poetic creation of varying sorts that gives the Symposium a unique significance within the university, not least because one of the subjects under discussion, Rago, was himself a professor here in the Divinity School and New Collegiate Division. Two different speakers (Al Filreis, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Don Share, senior editor of Poetry Magazine) gave talks on Rago, making specific mention of his dual standing as University of Chicago professor and contributor to and editor of Poetry Magazine during the ’50s and ’60s. Aside from the actual content of the talks, this portion of the afternoon shed light on the University’s role in shaping a poetic culture in the city, and how the city itself can take part.

Extending the thematic scope beyond the University, the event included two talks on editors of Chicago literary magazines: Margaret Anderson (editor of The Little Review from 1914–1929, discussed by Nancy Kuhl) and Alice Notley (editor of Chicago magazine from 1972–1973, discussed by Stephanie Anderson). Both speakers emphasized the dual role each editor had as both an objective art critic and someone able to shape the entire magazine itself into a work of art. Once again, it was not only the specific details regarding these editors that were of value, but also the wider historical context within which they operated. Both women had considerable influence in the art world while they were active, and Anderson’s work in particular is widely seen as some of the most important of the century—James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, was serialized in The Little Review during her tenure as editor.

Going further afield, the discussion on Sterling Plumpp, a Mississippi-born poet and former University of Illinois professor, stepped outside the boundaries of the city into the country at large. Focusing on the dual environments of Chicago and Mississippi in Plumpp’s work, instructor Garin Cycholl showed how even within the apparently broad context of a city or state, geographical designations in America break down in a number of ways that demand consideration of a more national context.

The methodical arrangement of the afternoon, which covered three ever-widening social contexts in which to consider these writers, was the main strength of the event. In addition to the assorted historical points made earlier, the format of the event allowed it to pass not as if I were listening to a lecture, but rather like I was watching what itself was an intentional work, similar to the poetry and magazines discussed. As a first-time attendee, I cannot say whether this organizational dimension is a staple of the event, but as long as the poetry symposium maintains this structure, it ought to remain an influential center for poetic dialogue and conversation on campus.