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From rhymes to riches: Poetry's sudden gift

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JOSEPH PARISI has one thing on his mind today: getting the January issue of Poetry Magazine proofed and sent to the printer in Pennsylvania.

It's already a few days late. But Mr. Parisi, editor of the prestigious 90-year-old journal, keeps getting interrupted by reporters. Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, has just given the magazine an estimated $100 million - one of the largest gifts ever to an American arts organization.

Parisi understands this is big news. Poetry has long been the art world's poor cousin, and $10,000,000 - the first installment - would keep the magazine afloat for 20 years. The bequest, which could swell to $150 million depending upon the value of Eli Lilly stock, could buy the Minnesota Twins. In the poetry world, a gift of this size is as unlikely as the US Army delivering all orders in iambic pentameter.

In his weaker moments, Parisi might say that rarity is a good thing. "This is a terrible burden," he says. "People don't realize the responsibility." The jeans-clad editor certainly didn't realize what he was in for when he announced the gift last Friday at the journal's 90th-anniversary celebration. Since then, his phone has not stopped ringing.

The attention is a bit overwhelming: Parisi likens the magazine's plight to that of the martyred little red hen, who could find no help in raising the wheat, but plenty of volunteers to eat it.

As the day wears on, messages continue to stack up on his desk, which is covered with poetry books and submissions. Nuisance calls stack up, too: investors who want to help him manage the new money; real estate agents offering beautiful new digs; poets asking if Parisi will share the wealth with them - now.

The answer to that last question is no. One immediate goal is to set up a foundation, as required by the IRS. Another is to find Poetry a larger, more permanent home. For the last 15 years, the magazine has enjoyed free rent of two rooms and what the staff calls a "walk-in closet" in the annex of Chicago's Newberry Library - a nondescript place where bleak earth tones are broken only by brightly colored spines of books and a single window looking out onto stone buildings, sky, and a strip of grass.


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