Dear Emily,

Sorry to hear about your accident. I’m glad you’re not dead, and hope you feel better. And thank you for your reply to my recent query regarding Osip Mandelstam’s quote about poetry’s perennial war-like environment & the “social idiotism” that would deny it. You may have gone a bit overboard with the hyperbolic Catholic Church analogy, which some readers will find despicable, but I see your point.

You refer to Bourdieu in describing how the interconnected poetry sites we’re talking about are “loci for the relay and circulation of symbolic capital and its various degrees of cultural violence, however neutral and benign such ‘arts’ consortia appear to be.” I’m a little out of my depth when it comes to “French Theory,” but strangely, as if by some unconscious Freudian association, the mention of “cultural violence” got me thinking of poet / poetaster Ruth Lilly and her $200,000,000 gift to Poetry magazine some sixteen years ago. In simple English, I’m wondering if her gift couldn’t be construed as a repressed, retaliatory “act of war” against a war machine that consistently shot down all of her poems… and, as a result, whether in that “cross fire” the American poetry atmosphere, throughout the interconnected world of Creative Writing and poetry-related Arts Organizations, didn’t get somewhat poisoned.

I’m no psychologist, but wouldn’t any poet, burdened with depression for complicated reasons, get all the more depressed by having her poems rejected again and again?  And if, like they say in pop psychology, depression is “anger turned inward,” isn’t it possible that the consistent rejection of her work added to Ms. Lilly’s depression, so that she was left to harbor some seriously repressed anger that she yearned to somehow unload on her rejecter without guilt, i.e. through a sort of Freudian potlatch that made it clear who was boss ($?)?  That would make her body of work, which was privately printed in 2005 by the Poetry Foundation under the title “A Little Book: The Poems and Selected Writings of Ruth Lilly,” something like the foundation of the Poetry Foundation.

So my question is: any idea where I might locate this book? I can’t find it anywhere; and I for one, and probably some of Dispatches readers, would like to read Ms. Lilly’ s writings, to get of an idea of what “bad” poetry—yet, poetry that nonetheless represents something of great value—looks like. It seems like some sort of well-guarded gold standard for how to (not) write poetry today.

Your grateful bibliophile,

La Flâneuse

PS I am of course glad to know that Ms. Lilly in her later years found relief from her life-long depression thanks to Prozac, a product of Lilly Pharmaceuticals. Prozac, however, in this context, raises the complicated but not irrelevant question that Derrida addresses in his writing on Plato’s use of the word “pharmakon”—a word, as we know, that designates both poison and cure… “the cure that is always already poison”… which comes close to describing prize-winning American poetry during the days of the Trump apocalypse.


Dear La Flâneuse,

I see that our hard-working Editors at Dispatches, Mssrs. Boughn and Johnson, have just done an interview at the Chicago Review, in which one of them (Johnson) suggests that the Lilly Corporation made billions from Viagra. I hate to correct monsieur Johnson in public (and I am not, in the event, I want to be clear, making a silly pun on his name), but the Lilly Corporation never made a killing off Viagra. They did it with Cialis.

And indeed, like Cialis, the “Little Book” the Poetry Foundation published of Madame Lilly’s poems seems to have had a lifespan of approximately 36 hours. Apparently, the book has completely vanished. I wonder why? Was it hidden, in embarrassment, by Ruth Lilly’s family? Or was it hidden by the Poetry Foundation (see below)? Or did it just die and disappear because of the violently mean-spirited title put on it by the very beneficiaries of her vast munificence (“A Little Book”)? It is a mystery, and since, in a somewhat real sense, it cost Ruth Lilly more than $200 million to have the book posthumously printed, it would seem to me that the mystery must be solved!

If you unearth it, please let me know. I will gladly allow you to share selected poems by Ruth Lilly here, and we can then discuss them. Dana Goodyear, in her old New Yorker article, refers to the poems in an utterly patronizing manner (as very sentimental and full of exclamation marks, etc.). But hers is a very rash and arrogant assumption, it seems to me, albeit one quite understandable for a non-poet to make, trying to impress people with how smart she is about poetry.

What do I mean about Goodyear’s (and almost everyone else’s) possibly false assumption? Well, for example, have you ever heard of the Moscow Conceptualist poets, active in the 70s and 80s, via underground, dangerous samizdat distribution? Dmitri Prigov and Lev Rubinstein are its two most famous practitioners, and they were absolute geniuses. Prigov, in particular, writing in various voices (including, famously–and with a wink to Eliot, perhaps–that of a Soviet policeman), produced a massive archive of avant-garde work that is rendered in the most ridiculous and banal doggerel imaginable. Rubinstein, himself, produced dozens of poetry “books” of blank, boring, disconnected sentences typed on index cards. This “sentimental” conceptual writing–also full of exclamation marks, by the way–proved to have a considerable subversive cultural impact, and the Moscow Conceptualists are now regarded as the most visionary and revolutionary poets of the late Soviet era.

So you see my point. The possibility cannot be totally discounted that the very eccentric Madame Lilly (who clearly had a lot of leisure time on her hands) set out, under the guise of a hapless, well-meaning, and repeatedly rejected rhymester, to produce a species of avant-garde populist poetry never before seen in America. And that much of it would have been produced in the 1970s and 80s, at the same time as the Moscow Conceptualists where producing theirs, makes the possibility all the more intriguing. Not least because–or so I have heard from a Russian source–Ruth Lilly was an avid supporter, morally and materially, of Soviet samizdat artists and writers.

But I think your hypothesis is utterly convincing, even if mine is wrong (though I hasten to say they are in no way mutually exclusive). One can easily see how Ruth Lilly might have bequeathed $200 million to the Poetry Foundation not just in an act of passive aggressive “gift-revenge,” but also in an act of visionary hostility against poetry in general—that the incomprehensible act of “generosity,” in other words, was really intended to overwhelm and corrupt, in slow-motion, what had always been an autonomous, rebellious cultural zone, flooding it with pharmaceutical capital, thus creating a bank-like institution at the heart of American poetry, naturally to be managed by financiers, energy executives, and former advisors to the intelligence agencies. One that, because of the power and influence of its moneyed imprimatur, is able to buy the compliant silence of poets, most of whom at this stage are invested, anyway, in a subculture that is now all about making one’s Career, in a mall-like maze of cash-flush cultural orgs, grants, prizes, and tenured gigs.

So let us just speculate that Ruth Lilly was two things: 1) an avant-garde poet totally familiar with the modernist, avant-garde origins of Poetry Magazine, and thus desirous of having her slyly ironic doggerel in its pages, and 2) a profoundly vengeful person (this quality of course reinforces my hypothesis that she was avant-garde in spirit), who was totally pissed off at Poetry Magazine for not understanding the subversive values of her work, and who decided, in a final poetic act that was truly conceptual in nature, to fuck up all of American poetry for good. To make it so sick that it would die a slow and painful death over, say, about fifty or sixty years (until maybe five or six Robin Hood outfits like Dispatches from the Poetry Wars rose up to fight back and turn things around, again). Let us speculate that this is a possibility. For if we do, we can grasp the possibility that the Poetry Foundation eventually came to realize her hidden purposes, too, and for that reason, in a panic, buried her “Little Book,” and deeper than Prospero ever could.

It is a mystery! I appeal to all our poets out there inspired by Dispatches’ edition of Mr. Edward Sanders’ marvelous Investigative Poetry. Dig in, boys and girls, and find those poems for us. Dispatches from the Poetry Wars will republish them. And if they don’t, I will quit.

Long live Ruth Lilly. May she reappear as an avant-gardist much more conceptually adept than the arthouse variety.

—Emily Post-Avant