The Atlantic Monthly's Sesquicentennial: Postcard From Cambridge, Massachusetts

Henry Stimpson

The Atlantic Monthly turns 150 this year, and since every issue of the monthly magazine has included the work of a poet or two—from Longfellow to Frost, Stevens to Wilbur—the New England Poetry Club, the Longfellow National Historic Site and the Friends of the Longfellow House decided to celebrate the sesquicentennial by inviting a bunch of famous poets to read their work in Cambridge. David Barber, the poetry editor of the Atlantic, hosted the event, which took place on August 19 on the East Lawn of the Longfellow National Historic Site, located on Brattle Street.

This stretch of Brattle Street, about a mile out of Harvard Square, is lined with elegant, tree-shaded mansions—some built way back in the 18th century. One of these was once occupied by Henry Wadsworth himself, who, judging from his house, must have done quite well indeed in the poetry game. Built in the 1700s, the Longfellow House is a sprawling three-story wood building, painted yellow, with wrap-around porches and many chimneys.

The event attracted a big crowd for poetry—every chair on the lawn was taken, so I sat down on the lush grass. I expected the poets to read their own work—the invitation featured names like Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Mary Jo Salter—but instead they read the poems of others that had been published in the Atlantic. I was a bit disappointed at first, but then I thought, "Well, why not. It’s still a chance to see them do their stuff." And there were more poets in attendance than the invitation had promised.

Barber led off with a quip about the magazine’s "double dactyl anniversary." He gave a quick overview of the magazine’s history of publishing "postage stamp islands of verse" in a sea of prose. Longfellow was a cofounder, along with three other three-handle members of the Boston literati: James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In its early years, the Atlantic was the first publisher of two poems once known to every schoolchild: Longfellow’s "Paul Revere’s Ride" and Julia Ward Howe’s "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The magazine splashed the latter on its cover in February 1862—probably the only time a general magazine has ever done that, Barber said. The Atlantic also boasts having published the work of W. H. Auden, Robert Browning, Robert Graves, W. B. Yeats, and even Abraham Lincoln.

Pinsky, a handsome, suave poet, read a poem about a turtle by William Carlos Williams and one by Frost, "Carpe Diem." He commented that Williams's free verse and Frost's formal poetry were more similar than people think, and his reading proved it.

The elderly poet David Ferry read a short Longfellow poem and gave an impassioned reading of a longer Whitman work, "As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life."

Salter read some letters and poems by Emily Dickinson, whose verse did not grace the pages of the Atlantic. However, Dickinson had an extensive correspondence with an Atlantic contributor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was a key player in arranging for publication of the reclusive poet’s works after her death.

Erick Funkhauser read Sylvia Plath’s "Arrival of the Bee Box,” a favorite of mine, which was written during Plath’s final white-hot frenzy of creativity. Funkhauser said it had echoes of Dickinson, Whitman, and Williams in it. The poem was accepted by the magazine in late 1962, making it the last Plath poem accepted during her lifetime. It was published in the April 1963 issue, but Plath had already committed suicide two month earlier at the age of thirty. Funkhauser also read a poem by Peter Davison, who preceded Barber as poetry editor and died a few years ago.

Gail Mazur read poems by Alan Dugan, Stanley Kunitz, and Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.

Bidart was the performance star. In black shoes, black suit, and a black shirt, he emoted vigorously as he read Robert Lowell’s powerful long poem, "For the Union Dead." His right hand rose to mimic bubbles rising and bursting when he read the lines “my hand tingled / to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish." Bidart's hand kept moving throughout the poem, and his eyebrows rose toward his balding pate and fell, his mouth grimaced, and his shoulders hunched up.

The Atlantic was a Boston institution until a few years ago, when the owner moved it to Washington, D.C. After the reading, I approached Barber and asked if he worked at home or in Washington. He explained that the magazine has a Boston bureau, and that’s where he camps out, not quite 9 to 5 every day, but regularly.

"Do you really read 75,000 submissions a year?” I asked, referring to a note in the event program. "I didn’t write that," the affable Barber said. "It’s really more like, oh, 25,000 a year."