Of all the literary scenes
Saddest this sight to me:
The graves of little magazines
Who died to make verse free.
— Keith Preston
It is impossible to tell the story of modern American poetry without examining the role of little magazines. During the twentieth century these idiosyncratic, mostly ephemeral, and inevitably uncommercial journals provided the one consistent home for poetry, poetics, and poetry criticism. While many poets published in large commercial magazines such as the New Yorker and Atlantic, the vast majority of modern verse appeared in journals with limited circulation edited by tiny staffs, often only one or two volunteers. These small magazines were not marginal to literary history. They did not publish only experimentalists and dissidents, nor did they serve mostly to discover promising young writers—although these journals fulfilled exactly those functions. By the middle of the twentieth century little magazines, published most new American poetry of every school and tendency—both mainstream and marginal. But their success came at a price. Although they achieved enormous literary influence, their readership remained small. While they succeeded in supporting poetry, they also inadvertently helped compartmentalize it.
The great age of the little magazine has gradually come to an end as the internet has changed both the economics and sociology of poetry publication. Small magazines survive in vast numbers, but their role in literary culture has diminished. They remain important but are no longer unique in their role as an alternative to commercial publication. In retrospect, their great age roughly coincided with the twentieth century. The names of the leading small magazines still remain well known to most writers over forty—Poetry, The Dial, The Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The Fifties, Kayak, Yardbird Reader, Grand Street. These were not only journals that published poets; they also trained them as editors and critics. In the days before blogs and websites, few serious poets failed to serve a stint as an editor or reader for a little magazine.
I must confess the pleasure I’ve taken in searching out and reading little magazines. In college when I should have been writing a paper or memorizing German verbs, I often spent hours looking through the bound issues of Partisan Review, The Criterion, or Horizon, dusty volumes that seemed to have long laid undisturbed in the stacks of the Stanford Library. Paging through the issues and reading poems, stories, essays, reviews, and editorials—sometimes just scanning the titles of works and names of contributors—gave me a tangible sense of a vanished cultural moment. For years I’ve also picked up copies at bookstores or through dealers. Although I can make a high-minded scholarly argument for these acquisitions, now shelved or copiously piled in my studio, my main motive has surely been the bibliophile’s greedy pleasure of possession. Even the evocative names of many defunct but once lively journals still give me a small poetic frisson—Blast!, Furioso, The Fugitive, Kulchur, Hound and Horn, Burning Deck, Sparrow, Botteghe Oscure, and Tiger’s Eye.
Vice Versa deserves a small but honorable place in the bustling history of American little magazines. Running for only three issues from November 1940 through January 1942, Vice Versa tried with unabashed ambition and exuberant irreverence to serve the classic function of the small magazine—to make a difference in the literary culture. Publishing only poetry and poetry criticism, editors Dunstan Thompson and Harry Brown, who had been contemporaries at Harvard, understood that to matter a little magazine had to make a big noise, and they announced their presence with the panache and self-assurance in which Harvard students have such alarming expertise.
Vice Versa did not espouse a particular poetic school or aesthetic. “Art is above temperament and technique,” Thompson declared. The journal’s program focused on literary excellence per se, and it displayed a broad view of what constituted good poetry. Vice Versa could publish W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Ezra Pound in successive issues accompanied by poets as dissimilar as Weldon Kees, Edith Sitwell, Conrad Aiken, George Barker, and Ivan Goll. If Thompson and Brown had a slight formalist bias, it was no more pronounced than in the New Directions annuals and Poet of the Month chapbooks published at the time by their Harvard acquaintance James Laughlin.
Modestly printed without a heavy stock cover, Vice Versa exuded the practical and austere tone of a reformist enterprise. There were no illustrations or artwork of any kind; the clean and balanced typography announced that careful language meant everything to this journal. Although contentiously independent, Vice Versa understood the importance of featuring well-known contributors, and each issue presented an impressive roster of talents, both established and emerging. Even seventy years later one recognizes most of the contributors, who not only included Auden, Pound, Thomas, Kees, Sitwell, Aiken, Barker, and Goll, but also Richard Eberhart, Howard Nemerov, Nicholas Moore, John Malcolm Brinnin, Horace Gregory, Herbert Read, and Marya Zaturenska. They also published the work of Harvard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Boylston Professor, Robert Hillyer, who had taught Thompson, Brown, and Nemerov in Cambridge.
What gave Vice Versa its special character was a passionate conviction that poetry mattered. This conviction is everywhere apparent in the journal but nowhere expressed more vividly than in Thompson’s flamboyant “Encyclical” in the first issue. To say that this statement of editorial mission is a classic little magazine manifesto understates its powerful concision and reformist zeal. The title, “Encyclical,” was well chosen. Thompson’s prose adopted the confident tone of an ex cathedra papal declaration: Vice Versa wasn’t just a literary magazine; it represented an aesthetic crusade “to attack the smugness, the sterility, the death-in-life which disgrace the literary journals of America.” If Thompson’s savagely satiric tone now seems a bit too cocky and self-important, his clear and courageous statement of artistic principles still radiates a refreshing idealism. The literary manifesto is not a genre for the meek and self-questioning. Reform requires confidence and conviction.
When Thompson announced that no group or generation would be spared Vice Versa’s cleansing criticism, he was not striking an empty pose. The reviews that filled the back pages of Vice Versa were exceptionally exacting, even by the generally tough standards of the early Forties. Vice Versa did sometimes employ the vilification, invective, and ridicule Thompson threatened. Brown dismissed Carl Sandburg as a “tenth-rate, cheap-jack poet standing up and spouting vicious nonsense” and nicknamed editor George Dillon’s Poetry “Mme. Dillon’s Waxworks Museum.” Edna St. Millay, “the Boadecea of Austerlitz,” was Brown’s particular bête noire. Judging her Make Bright the Arrows, he concluded, “The only word to describe this book is sloppy, though it’s also childish, sentimental, irrational, and inane.”
In his reviews Thompson offered more thoughtful and balanced but nonetheless often depreciating criticism. He rarely ridiculed or castigated his subjects, but he did place enormous demands on their works and usually demonstrated their failure to measure up. Thompson was particularly interesting on Wallace Stevens whom he called “certainly one of the best poets writing in America to-day,” before adding the deflationary observation, “This statement is to be taken as a truism, not as a compliment. In fact, considering the present impoverishment of poetry, it is no compliment at all.” Admiring the beauty of Stevens’s poetry, he disliked its “chill impersonality.” Likewise Thompson severely criticized E. E. Cummings but then went on to admire aspects of his work, and later reviewed W. H. Auden’s The Double Man in mostly negative terms before selecting specific passages for praise. Reviewing books, Thompson did not assess them against other new volumes; he judged them against the canons of great literature.
Although informed, alert, and intelligent, Thompson was not a natural critic. He had no interest in ideas per se, and he was not drawn to the careful analysis that enlivens the work of the more gifted critics of the period such as R. P. Blackmur or Yvor Winters. Certainly in comparison to the New Critics, Thompson’s criticism appears undisciplined and subjective. He rarely elaborated his ideas to explore them fully and offered no consistent theoretical basis for his judgments. For Thompson, poetry reviewing was primarily an exercise of taste—determining how good the new work was—rather than a job of analysis. Despite their limitations, his pieces in Vice Versa display the virtues of candor, intelligence, and conviction. They provide the reader of both his own time and today with a frank account of what one informed and careful writer of fine sensibility and broad taste thought (and felt) about the highly regarded poets of his time. If today this testimony seems bound by both personal and public history, Thompson’s smart and colorful prose retains the authenticity of its cultural moment and the author’s imaginative intelligence. And for admirers of Thompson’s own verse, these early reviews provide the most extensive statements of his personal poetics.
Any discussion of Vice Versa would be inadequate that did not mention the mordant humor and youthful high spirits of the journal. (Thompson was only twenty-two and Brown twenty-three when Vice Versa first appeared.) The editors used satire, ridicule, and parody as critical weapons—as well as vehicles to display their wit. When George Dillon responded to Vice Versa’s attack on Poetry, Brown ended his rebuttal with mock courtesy:
We won’t mow the grass around his grave any more; it disturbs him too much. In fact, we’re rather embarrassed to have aroused Poetry to an attack on us. It’s like having a dead maiden aunt stand up in her coffin and do a jig. (from “Zombie”)
Critical reviews and prose items bore titles like “Edna Makes the Supreme Sacrifice,” “Look Out! There’s a Modern Library Giant in that Cockpit,” and “Pardon Me But Your Clay Feet are Showing.” However sophisticated its vision, Vice Versa never lost its undergraduate irreverence.
Each issue also featured a satiric poem by M. D. Tarantula, which I assume—without external evidence—was a pseudonym for Thompson possibly in collaboration with Brown. The verse is too good to be by anyone without considerable talent:
You’d be a genius as a general.
(“The art of war is to retreat.”)
You’d be a wizard as a writer.
(”Let me have that whiskey neat.”)
(from “Your Hit Parade”)
Especially amusing were Vice Versa’s contributor’s notes, which appeared only in the final issue. How could one resist a magazine written by poets described so memorably? Here are a few entries:
Weldon Kees—keeps bees.
Howard Nemerov—the nightclub singer; subscribes to the Kenyon Review.
Ezra Pound—a minor poet of the school of Cavalcanti; does propaganda work for the Italian regime.
Herbert Read—is a character in a book by Wyndham Lewis.
Dunstan Thompson—is sensitive, unspoilt, and thoroughly charming; lives on a barge in the East River.
That final issue dated January, 1942 also contained the announcement of Vice Versa’s dissolution. In a column titled “Ave Frater, Atque Vale,” Thompson announced:
I am writing this on the third day of the war. The future—not only for me but for this magazine—is utterly impossible to foresee. Harry Brown has already been drafted; is now a Corporal. I see no reason to believe that I shall not have military duties of my own very soon. As it stands, at present, this issue would appear to be our last.
Although Thompson expressed hope that his friend and Harvard classmate, William Abrahams, might continue the journal, the third Vice Versa was indeed the final number. Advertised as a triple issue, it ran eighty pages versus the earlier thirty-six-page format. The editors clearly felt the need to published everything they had accepted to leave no manuscripts stranded. To reflect the increased size of the issue, they also raised the cover price from ten to twenty-five cents.
Facing military conscription and the dangers of war, Thompson made another change in editorial policy. Despite his refreshingly frank admission in his “Encyclical” that Vice Versa had been in part created out of “the common desire for self-publication,” Thompson had published only one of his own poems in each of the first two issues. (This tally does not include the work of the mysterious Mr. Tarantula.) Now in the final number he offered “Eight Poems,” the largest group published from any author in the magazine’s short history. Such overt self-promotion by the young writer who personally subsidized the magazine could easily be criticized—if the work had not been so distinguished. Five of the poems would appear in his first volume Poems (1943), and the group contained some of the finest verse Thompson ever wrote, especially the sonnet “This loneliness for you is like the wound,” which appeared here simply as “Poem.” Ornate and feverishly lyric, these poems show the full realization of Thompson’s early baroque style, which combined emotional intensity, sensuous imagery and an alternately evocative and frustrating obscurity. If Thompson was going off to meet the apocalypse, he had left a testament that he had indeed been a poet.
Neither Thompson nor Brown would edit another magazine. After the war Brown became a successful novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter. His novel, A Walk in the Sun (1944), was made into a film in 1945, and he moved to Hollywood to write the screenplays for such films as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951) for which he won an Oscar, and Ocean’s Eleven (1960). He died in 1986. Thompson’s subsequent literary career seemed less sustained and successful. By 1946 he had published the last of his three early volumes of verse. He wrote one well-received travel book, The Phoenix in the Desert (1951), and one novel, The Dove with a Bough of Olive (1954). Having settled in England, he then seemed to vanish as a writer. No other books in prose or verse appeared before his death in 1974. The passionate aesthete of the early poems appeared to have disappeared into middle-aged quiescence. But as the posthumous publication of his Poems: 1950-1974 (1984) eventually revealed, Thompson continued writing, despite the indifference of editors and publishers, creating a mature style of spiritual depth and intensity. The idealist who wrote the “Encyclical” in the first Vice Versa had not misrepresented himself. To use his own editorial metaphor, he had begun the voyage and followed its difficult course faithfully to the end.