Destroyed by Poetry: Alice Corbin and the Little Magazine Effect
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Destroyed by Poetry:
Alice Corbin and the Little Magazine Effect

I haven’t anything to send you for the anthology but scraps. I’ve done almost nothing since the magazine started . . . I send a few scraps with little confidence of their being worth anything.

—Alice Corbin to Ezra Pound, May 19151

In 1915, three years into her tenure as Associate Editor of Poetry, Alice Corbin dismissed her own poems—twice—as “scraps” in a response to Ezra Pound’s solicitation for his Catholic Anthology.2 As Poetry’s Foreign Correspondent, Pound worked closely with Corbin, and both were blunt, even brutal, in appraising their peers.3 So when Corbin wrote to Pound as a poet, not a fellow editor, she did so with understandable trepidation. But Corbin’s “scraps” are more than a hedge. They are her central metaphor for the work of the poet in the age of the little magazine.

Thanks to periodical studies scholars’ nuanced recoveries, there has been a revaluation of little magazines and their role in the development of modernist poetry.4 However, in focusing on the contributions of these magazines, critics may overlook a major source of their significance. Little magazines built careers, marshalled audiences, even invented forms, but their centrality to the field of cultural production was also a disruption of it.5 What I call the “little magazine effect” is a particular type of lyric alienation not caused by exposure to world war, fast trains, or moving pictures, but to modernist editing and publishing. Akin to an agricultural combine, the magazine cuts, threshes, [End Page 667] and cleans, altering the poetry it presents and the poets who wrote it. Even if a poem is textually unchanged between submission and publication, the bibliographic framing and legitimacy the magazine provide become necessary for its status as poetry.6 When considered as an expanding position in Pierre Bourdieu’s hierarchical field of cultural production, the little magazine “radically transform[s]” the position of the poet.7 This Bourdieuian perspective casts key characteristics of modernist poetry—fragmentation and collage—as defensive efforts to maintain position by mimicking the practices of the group that threatens them: editors. But for poets to become editors of their own poems, they must locate source texts not encumbered by traditional authorship. The little magazine effect therefore leads directly to racial and cultural appropriation.

In this article, I explore the concept of the little magazine effect and sketch some of its implications through a pair of entwined synecdoches: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse for little magazines and its founding Associate Editor, Alice Corbin, for poets.8 If the famous and still-publishing Poetry is an obvious stand-in for magazines, the nearly forgotten Corbin may seem a less exemplary modernist.9 But to understand a structural effect it is perhaps best not to look to those who proved exceptional at navigating that structure.10 Corbin’s ordinariness, her forgottenness, is exactly what makes her representative. And she was exceptional in one very important way: she was endowed with the symbolic capital of Poetry and, as a poet embedded in the little magazine and therefore hyperconscious of its workings, her poetry reveals a concentration of the little magazine effect.11

At Poetry, Corbin prided herself on sifting through the unsolicited submissions or, as she privately called them, the “virgin verse.”12 The gently off-color metaphor casts poetry as collaborative—not the work of an individual poet, but the consummation of poet and magazine—emphasizing the extent of the magazine’s textual and bibliographic intervention. This interference was notable and novel. The rise of free verse—and with it a change in how meter and form were understood, if not always how they were practiced—was a central element of the “new” poetry.13 Freed from or denied established formal markers of completion and mastery, the status of poetry was less certain, increasing the importance of editors in differentiating experimentation from nonsense. As Suzanne Churchill and Ethan Jaffee have discussed, the “free verse controversy” was a source of publicity for the new poetry, as were, as Lorenzo Thomas has argued, public struggles for authority between editors such as Poetry...


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