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Now It Can Be Told: The True History of the Beloit Poetry Journal

By Marion K. Stocking

 

I.   The Prologue: How It All Started

     In the beginning there was a little magazine called Compass, published in the late forties by the Decker Press in Prairie City, Illinois. James A. Decker had founded his press to publish worth-while books of poetry. That was not easy in the early 1940's in Prairie City (population – 400). After several distinguished and well-received volumes, he fell on hard financial times. So in about 1945, he started producing some poetry books strictly for money. The Decker Press went vanity.

     One of the poets Decker contracted to publish was Ervin Tax, who had submitted a tremendously long epic entitled "The Wraith of Gawain." Decker accepted Tax's advance payment but couldn't produce the book; so Tax advanced, unfulfilled contract in hand, and Decker departed. He left the business to Tax by default.

     Tax was a determined man. He wanted to see his book in print, and he did. He stepped up activities at the press. He hired a New York editor, Robert (AKA Robin) Glauber from Knopf to handle his quality titles, such as David Ignatow's first volume, Poems (1948), and The Factual Dark (1949) by Chad Walsh, a young Beloit College English professor. One of Robin's jobs was to edit Compass, and since he and Chad had become good friends, he invited Chad to join him as co-editor. One of the young poets they published in the magazine was David Stocking, a colleague of Chad's at Beloit. You can read about what happened next in the Chicago newspapers in 1950, but here's the story as Robin told it.

     In addition to the typesetting machinery, the paper stocks and the presses, James Decker left behind his sister Dorothy. She was a large, plain woman and the only person who could fix all the ancient machinery as it regularly broke down. She was essential to the press's operation.

     So Tax, in a cool and distant way, courted her – or, at least, flattered and pampered her. Apparently this was the first time, for whatever reason, any man had ever done so. Dorothy Decker quite lost her head. There was considerable talk of engagement and marriage – on her part. Tax merely looked amused and asked her to unjam the linotype again.

     No one knows the exact details, of course, but one night early in 1950, a month after Robin Glauber had left the press to work for the Newberry Library in Chicago, Dorothy and Erv went for a ride in her car. Next morning he was found shot to death in the front seat and she lay in the back with a rifle end in her mouth and the top of her head blown away. Apparently, Dorothy had had enough of Tax's coolness.

     In murder and suicide the Decker Press came to a bloody end. Back contracts went into litigation, but Robin was offered the rights to Compass if he would fulfill the unexpired subscriptions. It was a good magazine, and both he and Chad were sure it was worth preserving. But how?

     They decided to approach President Carey Croneis with the longshot proposal that Beloit College take over the publication. The time was auspicious. Beloit was in trouble with the Midwest Conference for its outrageous success in athletics. The basketball team was known as "The Smallest Team in the Big Time" and was playing as far afield as Madison Square Garden. Croneis instantly recognized the advantage of associating the college name with a more intellectual activity and gave the founding editors the go-ahead – with one stipulation: the name Beloit should appear in the title.

II.   The Magazine

     In the fall of 1950 Compass disappeared and The Beloit Poetry Journal appeared, its first issue guest-edited by May Sarton. David Stocking and David Ignatow were soon full editors, and in its fifth year I joined the editorial circle. It was a small world then: only about a hundred and fifty literary magazines in English, world wide, with a combined circulation of under fifty thousand. Today there are close to five thousand little magazines and small presses, and Poet's Market lists 1,700 publishers of poetry.

     In this exploding market, The Beloit Poetry Journal has held its own, faithful to the editorial policy as Chad Walsh and Robin Glauber formulated it:

The Beloit Poetry Journal considers itself independent in its editorial policy, publishing the best poems it receives, without preconceptions as to form, content, length, or allegiance. It also tries to keep its readers abreast of new directions in today's poetry.

By 1958 we had discovered or introduced early in their careers such then-unknown poets as Richard Eberhart, Philip Booth, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, David Ignatow, Richard Wilbur, James Dickey, Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin, and Robert Creeley. We had published five special chapbooks: the first translation of Lorca's Gypsy Ballads, by Langston Hughes; Three Self-Evaluations, one by Galway Kinnell; a centennial celebration for Walt Whitman; a volume of poems in honor of Robert Frost; and my own collection of folksongs from oral tradition. All of these were published both in paper and hard-bound editions and received national recognition. Only the Lorca translations, perhaps the most distinguished publication in our 42-year history, precipitated some protest in the Beloit community. I can now see this as a premonitory rumble of the thunder ahead.

III.   The Issue

     In 1958 the poetry world had become polarized between the Modern tradition, exemplified by the allusive and ironic Eliot, and the wild men of the American West Coast, the so-called "underground" and "beat" generation. Allan Ginsberg's Howl, today considered a masterpiece of post-modern literature, had appeared in 1956, captured the attention of the media, and won a court case against charges of obscenity. The Beatniks were no longer underground. In England a new school had emerged called "The Movement," with poets like Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin writing dry, ironic, but colloquial poems, in strict traditional forms. The Beloit Poetry Journal had a friend at Oxford, Paris Leary, who offered to edit a Movement selection for us, and we decided to invite Beloit alum James Boyer May in Los Angeles to produce a parallel collection from the underground. Guy Daniels, writing in The Nation on 2 August 1958 said of the period from 1950-56:

the battle lines were clearly drawn between Academe and the Underground. Few, indeed, were the neutral zones where the belligerents could meet face to face, as they could in that little literary Switzerland, The Beloit Poetry Journal.

One critic recently commented that we were the only magazine he could imagine that could publish Charles Bukowski and Philip Larkin in the same issue. But in our special issue of Winter 1957/58, that's just what we did.

IV.   The College in the Fifties

     When Henry Pettit, a colleague at the University of Colorado at Boulder heard that I was leaving there for Beloit in 1954, he was horrified. He had taught there, and he thought I'd never survive. "Why, we even had to pull down the shades if we wanted to light up a cigarette!" he warned. Well, I didn't smoke, and I knew the college's national reputation for the Logan Museum collections, the theater under Kirk Denmark, recently written up in Theatre Arts, its Art League, where Ben Shahn had recently spoken, and The Beloit Poetry Journal. So I came. It was an aggressively Christian College, true, but in its English curriculum under Fred White it was far out in the lead toward global and interdisciplinary studies, and Miller Upton, who arrived the same year I did, 1954, was wonderfully imaginative and supportive of experimentation.

     But there was a disgruntled old guard, chief among whom was the History Department head Taylor Merrill. He was aggressively Christian, pastor of the Congregational Church in Shopiere. And he was a "character." One of his students recently described him to me as a "buffoon." He sometimes came to his class in M-I in costume. He was known to shoot off a gun in class if the students seemed drowsy. He was a rabid supporter of the baseball team. At my first Beloit commencement he convulsed the seniors as the faculty processed solemnly between their lines by holding over his head in place of his mortarboard a Beloit baseball cap.

     To Taylor Merrill, the English Department, with its new Freshman English course studying everything from the Bhagavad Gita to, Lord save us all!, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, was a hotbed of subversion. Our first hint of trouble to come was when the new student magazine, then called Satyre, published a section titled "Parodies Lost," including a parody of Hemingway by a serious young man who had been offended by Hemingway's stories and took this way of ridiculing the then-shocking subject matter. Worse yet, an honors English major who happened also to be captain of the football team, Phil Thompson, a Korean War veteran, had used the word shitty in a cartoon caption. Immediately the roof blew off. Protests poured in from trustees, local merchants, donors to the college, and even Beloit Memorial High School that went so far as to ask that no more posters or announcements from the college should go up. Innocent George Evans discovered that his satire of Hemingway's sex and violence was being read as an autobiographical essay! There was a call to kill the magazine and get rid of the faculty responsible. President Upton called a meeting of the Publications Board, at which he announced that there would be no censorship at any school he was president of. Then he said something that even in 1955 astonished us: he said the only thing he couldn't understand was why anyone (i.e. Phil Thompson, one of his favorite students) would write a word that no one would ever speak. But Miller was always a man of principle, and Satyre survived, flourished, and evolved into Avatar, one of the longest-lived undergraduate magazines anywhere.

V.   The College and The Beloit Poetry Journal

     We soon found out who Satyre's enemy was. In our Movement/Underground issue we handed him his ammunition on a silver platter. Ramona Eik, from the bookstore, came to my husband, Dave Stocking (Chad Walsh was in Finland on a Fulbright), and reported that Taylor Merrill had come in and tried to buy six copies of that issue. She was sold out and said she'd get them from Dave. Taylor told her he didn't want Dave to know who ordered them. Dave, being Dave, delivered the copies to Taylor in person. Eyeball to eyeball they argued about obscenity. Taylor then repeated what he had done with Satyre, sending out marked copies to all the friends of the college who might be offended and agitating for the termination of the magazine and of all faculty involved. To Taylor, the poems we published were prima facie evidence of our unfitness to teach at a Christian college. Chad's role as an Episcopalian priest, speaker at religious emphasis weeks all over the country, and author of many religious poems and books, did not exempt him; indeed, he seems to have been Taylor's primary target, though Dave, who was up for tenure that year, was the most obviously vulnerable.

     Taylor had three or four dedicated supporters, one a student who acted as his assistant pastor, one a local businessman, and the third Carl Welty, the very distinguished head of the biology department. With the faculty, Taylor kept a low profile and let Carl carry the ball. Carl Welty was the best possible person for this job. For one thing, as an ornithologist and really beautiful human being, he was one of the faculty we most admired and respected. It is a tribute to the essential decency and collegiality of the academic community that though we fought hard in the ensuing weeks, there was nothing personal in the debate, and we remained friends to the end. What I say of Carl Welty here I say with affection and respect and considerable sadness. He was, truly, profoundly offended at the poems we had been publishing from the beginning. "Years ago," he wrote in a letter to the president, "I spent a winter working on the nightshirt as a stevedore in a large freight station; another time I spent a winter as a lumberjack in a French-Canadian lumber camp, so I have had ample opportunity to hear profane and obscene language. But the current Beloit Poetry Journal descends deeper into sludge." (I could understand this. A folklorist once told me that there were no off-color entries in the great Archer Taylor collection of folk sayings because the Professor was such a dear sweet man that nobody would ever say such things in his presence. Doubtless Miller Upton's obvious idealism and dignity had similarly protected him from the common language of the students.) Carl Welty's letter called for hiring faculty "more sympathetic with the long-established Christian ideals of the college," and he formally proposed that the faculty, at its meeting of 24 February 1958, immediately withdraw its support of the magazine.

     Then followed six formal (and uncounted informal) meetings: First, the faculty Academic Council met and gave the magazine its unanimous support. Then came the faculty meeting, at which Carl Welty presented his evidence – selected poems from various issues, including a reading of the complete text of "Five Old Ladies Locked in the Lavatory" from my folksong chapbook. He acknowledged that he was reading some words that he had never before said aloud, though I assure you we did not in those days publish any of the taboo "four-letter words." When he ended by moving to withdraw college support, Taylor Merrill rose to second the motion, citing two reasons: the "putrid" (his word) content and the way it was losing money for the college. He supported the latter charge with letters of outrage from college donors. After repeated questions from the faculty, he acknowledged that he had actively solicited all the protests he had cited. There was never any spontaneous protest, from any subscriber or member of the public – only praise, and a great deal of that. Gustav "Woody" Johnson from the History Department rose to speak eloquently about the traditional function of college and university presses in publishing materials too experimental or controversial for commercial presses, and their necessary role as seedbed of new ideas and forms. Woody cited the pressure on the college during the McCarthy protests, when it was asserted that we could lose money and prestige if we allowed attacks on McCarthy, and pointed out that in the long run the college had benefited both in integrity and finances for its refusal to yield to pressure. The faculty then voted thirty-six to twenty-two to continue support of the magazine.

     Next came a meeting of the American Association of University Professors, a very active chapter in those days of debate over academic freedom. There Carl Welty, again acting as cats-paw for Taylor Merrill, maintained the concept of obscenity as anything offensive to accepted community standards. The saddest moment in the whole controversy came in this meeting, when, under questions about this definition, Professor Welty acknowledged that if he had been editor of a biological journal a hundred years before, he would, by this principle, not have published anything by Charles Darwin. It was a vivid but sobering lesson in the interdependence of first amendment rights to freedom of expression.

     Dave and I then met with the Instructional Committee of the Board of Trustees, who were divided, two to two, on the issue. At the meeting of the full board at commencement time, the two supporters on that committee found themselves unprepared for the violent hostility of the rest of the board, which voted to suspend the magazine. One of the trustees later told me that she had had no idea of how thoroughly Taylor Merrill and one other board member had worked to defame the journal and its editors. Miller Upton, who had supported the magazine all along and who admitted to rather liking the most offensive of the poems in the special issue, was unable to convince his board to allow him to decide the issue. They overrode his pleas and the vote of the faculty, and The Beloit Poetry Journal once became a private enterprise, owned by its editorial board.

     There was one more meeting. In those days, the senior class elected a faculty member to be their speaker at Senior Vespers, and the class on 1958 elected Fred White, the English Department chair. Fred riveted his audience by reading at length from the most controversial of the poems, Gil Orlovitz's "Not." I remember sitting in my pew rigid, my nails digging into my palms, thinking: "I know Fred's angry, but surely, surely he won't read the most offensive, the truly blasphemous passages. Surely he won't. Or would he." I feel sure there has never been a more electric moment in that chapel. And it's about time you heard some of what he read. The poem is an extreme statement of the religious via negativa, heavily influenced by the Asian mysticism that was to become so popular in the next decade. It rejected first the corruptions of materialistic society, the obscenity of war, the narrowness of sectarian religions world-wide, and then the whole material world, the world of the senses including even the loveliest. This doctrine is no less revolutionary, no less disturbing, no less offensive than when Orlovitz first belted it out thirty-five years ago.

     We as editors believed that there were at least two poems in the issue more offensive than "Not," but since they avoided certain trigger-words, they escaped the red pencils of the Taylor Merrills. One was more explicitly sexual than anything we had heretofore published, Robert Sward's "Poetry, Banana, Wife, and the Sonnet." The other was by a then-unknown Los Angeles poet named Charles Bukowski (who may today be the only poet popular enough to make a living from his poetry without teaching or giving readings). Buk's poem was a little too repulsive even for our "putrid" tastes back then, but since the point of the special issue was to illustrate the cutting edge of the new poetry, we risked publishing it. And I'm going to read it now in its entirety, for its relevance to the whole debate on art and authority, from Joe McCarthy's era to the controversy today, sparked by the Senate's own Taylor Merrill – Jesse Helms – and fueled by the President's knee-jerk reaction to attacks by Pat Buchanan, on the relationship of art to political authority. In case you haven't been following this issue, in firing John Frohnmeyer as Director of the National Endowment for the Arts, effective May first, Mr. Bush announced that he personally did not like some of the art the Endowment funded.

     Bukowski's poem tells you all you need to know, but I'll just cue you in advance that in about 1485, a poet named Colyngbourne wrote a couplet satirizing three of King Richard III's advisors as "The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our dog."

TREASON
by Charles Bukowski

Colyngbourne crossed a King with a poem
and inherited new gallows on Tower Hill,
and they cut him down while he was still bubbled
and tore out his disenchanted bowels
and tossed them in the fire by his side
where they sputtered and curled like live snakes
and the butcher put his hand into the hole
of his body
and moved the fingers
like a suckling red spider,
(and the trees stood watching without comment
and a bird flew by
wings-to-body, wings-out
bouncing boundless in the sky
like a rock thrown downhill;)

and the butcher sliced away
his testicles and his manhood
with one small blot; and
a bloodless eye larger than the moon
stared into his brain,
and he said,
"Oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble," and,
victoriously,
died.

Richard III, stale with vengeance
slid the small ring upon his little finger
and felt
that men died too easily and
not often enough:
      The Cat, the Rat and Lovell the dog
      Rule all England under an Hog.

he watched the first fly settle
upon the viscid edge of the hole,
tremble eagerly with legs,
awed with the size of the prize,
and then flatten itself
to feed;

he spate, smiled, and turned as a King should turn
(already he seemed to smell the fumes of decay)
and clapped his hands flatly
like two wicked boards sounding
for some jester with a flagon
of self-abasement and vertigo
to make him forget
that for a moment the fly
had seemed to look upon him
with its thousand eyes
and flicked its
flithy awkward stinging snout
toward him
as if it had sensed the
tangled viscera that
sucked and puffed and pulled
the thin living silver
through his body.

ah, but visions and dragons and nothings!

the fool ran, belled and gesturing,
toward him
and the fly
frightened
rose from the poet
and circled about the monarch's head
like some fat drunken bee
readying to raze a flower . . .

the King slapped out
and missed
and decided the jester too
must die.

VI.   And so . . .

     Here we are today, collecting poems to begin our forty-third year. We continue to receive awards. In this year's Pushcart Press "Best of the Small Presses" award, drawn from the small, independent, literary book presses and magazines of the English-speaking world, one of only twenty-eight selected out of 4,500 nominations was one on Jane Addams we recently published by Gwendolyn Brooks, with an honorable mention for a poem by Philip Levine – two poets we first discovered in the fifties. Both Brooks and Levine contributed to our fortieth anniversary issue of new poems by our fifties discoveries. Others who contributed include Galway Kinnel, Howard Nemerov, Adrienne Rich, Hayden Carruth, Philip Booth, Robert Creeley, and – yes – Charles Bukowski.

     A recent review in the Library Journal said of us, "Standards are never higher than here." The reviewer in this spring's Literary Magazine Review said:

Once in a while, I'll pick up a lit mag and read a good poem by someone I've never heard of. A poem that knocks me down and steals my shoes and makes me walk back to my own poor town over rocks and thorns. A poem that knocks the oomph out of my status quo. A poem I want to read to everybody. One that works and risks while it works. The Beloit Poetry Journal offers such poems.

He goes on to chastise us for crowding our pages too much and committing other sins in layout and format. We are considering going to a 48-page format to allow more room for white space and more gracious layout. All we need is money.

     And speaking of money, we have made progress. When my husband and I retired to Maine in 1984, we took the magazine with us. After his death I became sole owner and publisher. It seemed a heavy responsibility. So with our legal advisor, Dave's son Fred, we have organized the Beloit Poetry Journal Foundation, Inc., a fully tax-exempt, non-profit corporation, with a president (me), board of directors, annual meeting – the works. The Foundation publishes The Beloit Poetry Journal, of which I am editor, with a strong Editorial Board, most of them with Beloit College connections. So all goes on as in the past, except that there is an organization to carry on when I wear out, and an ability for the first time since we left the college to solicit tax-exempt donations. So sometime soon I'm going to plan our first fund-raising drive, hoping to develop an endowment that will generate enough income to make the magazine perpetually self-supporting.

     The college's cutting us loose has turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to us. In difficult times, a publication can be one of the first things to get the axe. The distinguished Carleton Miscellany was cut off many years ago, and the latest casualty to the economic crisis has been the seemingly invulnerable Yale Review. By keeping our magazine small enough for us to handle the work without paid staff and pay our printer without mortgaging the house, we hope to keep The Beloit Poetry Journal delighting and disturbing our readers for as long as poets keep sending us strong poems. I myself hope to be around at the turn of the century for our fiftieth year, but I'd like to think the magazine will continue to flourish right into the twenty-second century.

27 March 1992