LOVERS: A TRIBUTE TO POET LORE’S FOUNDERS
But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.- Jack Gilbert
We know this much: after Helen Clarke died in 1926, Charlotte Porter left Boston and moved north to their old house on Isle au Haut, where they used to spend summers. There were the old familiar hills and pines, rocks leading to the sea and sharp-eyed gulls for company. Maine’s coast-line was visible but only reachable by boat, and that was fine.
Sixty-some years early, three years apart, the two had been born in Pennsylvania and, improbably, were both named “Helen”—though Charlotte later shed the name and took “Endymion” (after the Keats poem) for herself. Maybe Helen (“bright one,” “torch-bearer”) better suited her partner. Charlotte Endymion Porter: her names meant “free man,” “diver,” and “gatekeeper,” respectively. There was irony for a woman holding these identities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when laws were being debated and passed above her head, out of reach. But Charlotte must have known what all overlooked people know: that there are subterranean worlds—that there are ways to outlive surface dwellers.
I don’t know if they met in autumn, but I picture it that way, the frost of breath and collegial intelligence of the season cutting through summer’s haze. They met first, fittingly, in words: Helen had written an article about music in Shakespeare’s plays that Charlotte admired published in Shakespeariana, the journal she edited in the mid-1880’s. I can see her reading at her desk, pen poised above Helen’s paper. Did she recognized this stranger’s voice even as she read?
They loved the same writers—Shakespeare, Robert Browning—before they loved each other, and they loved each other, in part, because of this shared passion for art: a sign, perhaps, that it might be safe to land, that friendship was possible. And so they became friends, and within a few years formulated and founded the journal Poet Lore together as a way to share the art they admired with the wider world.
Porter and Clarke launched the magazine in January of 1889 in Philadelphia as a monthly “devoted to Shakespeare, Browning, and the Comparative Study of Literature.” The comparative aspect of this work was essential: art, to them, lived in exchanges, in the folding over and combing through by multitudes of minds: in community. The magazine quickly drew an avid readership from among the nation’s many literary clubs and societies, though it was not particularly lucrative. Porter and Clarke actually moved the operation three hundred miles northeast when, in 1891, a Boston publisher offered them free office space in exchange for advertising. They continued to edit the journal for more than 30 years after that, publishing their own critical essays and commentary alongside featured artists.
They wanted art to pierce the ordinary. They thought that if enough Americans absorbed literature into their lives and then discussed it with each other, the broader culture would evolve, and so they made Poet Lore a vehicle for introducing new, often foreign, voices to their readers. They encouraged subscribers to respond critically, both in their own private literary clubs and in written letters to the magazine. Charlotte and Helen believed it was not enough to read literature, though that was the starting point; they felt that culture would not change if people kept their thoughts to themselves. Through their journal, they succeeded in engaging literary communities across the nation.
I can’t help wondering how much of Poet’ Lore’s continuing legacy—its culture of aesthetic openness, its willingness to take risks in pursuit of discovery—stems from their imperfect, entirely human, flesh-and-blood love. Having never started a magazine, or stayed with the same person for more than a few years, I can’t help romanticizing their ability to build a life and an enduring literary institution together.
Like me, most of the women I know write alone, on the couch or bed of a modest apartment. If we share our work, it is often with outer women writers—those rare friends scattered near and far—rather than with our partners whom we love with tender ambivalence, with parts of ourselves. Our lives are often fractured, not because of indifference to connection but, more likely, because of the difficulty we’ve had maintaining it. We move through the day, navigating our various duties. We speak quickly and sometimes forget what we’ve said, or typed, moments later. That is the pace at which we live now; that is the level of distraction. Was there more time to think—more time to focus—for Helen and Charlotte
When they met, they were in their twenties. Helen would live another four decades, and Charlotte six. Helen would die in Massachusetts, and so would Charlotte, years later. And many years after that, I would stumble upon their magazine, when I was close to the age at which they met. I would publish my first poem in its pages.
It occurs to me that to see myself as isolated, a lone writer working sporadically in the quiet of her home during the short stretches before and after work, would be to miss the truth that Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter devoted themselves to making clear: that we are all part of an ongoing conversation, connected by a mutual love and admiration for art, the language that flows beneath all language. My writing—everyone’s writing for that matter—is the product of an old and ongoing interplay of minds, of voices, and the best thing we can do is to pick the conversation up when it flags. The best thing we can do is to keep it going.
- MEGAN FOLEY,
Volume 109, No. 3/4