I Feel So Virtuous

15 April 2003

If there’s a halo above my head it’s because I’ve just been through seven or so garbage bags of party garbage and ex­tract­ing the recyclables. (I was wearing gloves but—have you ever un­ex­pect­edly found your fingers covered in green dip?) I feel so virtuous.

A memo from Harold Ross (founding editor of The New Yorker) to Katharine S. White, de­fend­ing his de­ci­sion that payment for poems should take into account not just a poem’s length, but also its width:

Sep­tem­ber 9, 1947

Mrs. White:

The new poetry payment scheme is in to stay, or the prin­ci­ple of it is. It’s the only way I, for one, can operate, with any idea of what I’m doing. We pay for every­thing else by space—or at any rate we measure everything, and space is one factor—and we should un­ques­tion­ably pay for poetry that way, too.

I think it is a mistake to explain the rates to poets, unless some one of them asks for an explanation, which is unlikely. All through this payment thing one factor sticks out to me: Prose writer, artists, poets, are ap­palled at the thought of space en­ter­ing into the ap­praisal of their, and other people’s work, but space is cer­tainly a factor in the value of a con­tri­bu­tion to the New Yorker Pub­lish­ing Company, Inc. If we measure poems by their length (which we have always done, and which prac­ti­cally every­one else does), it seems to me absurd not to take into con­sid­er­a­tion also the width.

H.W. Ross