Saturday, January 19, 2008

To Be an American Poet: Reed Whittemore

[photo from Reed Whittemore's first stint as US poet laureate ("Consultant in Poetry") 1964-1965]

Why did you start writing poetry? Did you begin in school? At home, in "greeting cards" to family or friends? Perhaps romance -- that is, Romance -- pressed you to the page in the struggle to win someone's undying attention.

Whatever the reason, by age 18, most of us either "leave it behind" or make a commitment to it, measuring what we write against what we've dreamed a poet's life should become. Before the era of MFA poetry programs, it was far more rare to either enter poetry late in life, or stay with the early determination to Be A Poet -- which is what Reed Whittemore managed to do. And still does, at nearly 90, with some 20 books of poetry, criticism, biography, and "literary journalism" to his credit.

Whittemore's memoir AGAINST THE GRAIN: THE LITERARY LIFE OF A POET was released a few months ago by his old friend and sometime publisher, Merrill Leffler of Dryad Press ( My copy arrived along with the holidays ... at 321 pages, plus gracious "front matter" and useful "back matter," the book is worth enjoying slowly. It rambles gently through Whittemore's New Haven, CT, childhood (he was born in 1919), then takes on friendships and literary collaborations and confrontations with the eagerness of a young man taking the world as his own.

The memoir's foreword comes from Garrison Keillor, and to the extent that Whittemore's poetry gets "discovered" by young poets and poetry readers today, it's often through Keillor's radio program, The Writer's Almanac. Keillor and Whittemore share Minnesota as long-time home, although for Whittemore the Minnesota years were from 1947 to 1966, as professor of English at Carleton College. And that's the part that sounds like a quintessential American-family-man-as-poet: steadily earning a living, taking care of his family, being part of the faculty.

Yet the before and the after make it clear that these years of "normal American life" became the tough, resilient central fiber for Whittemore's capacity to confront the world and insist on Poetry's mission as political rebel.

For his college years wrapped themselves around Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; his invitation to Washington, DC, as U.S. poet laureate (in those days, "Consultant in Poetry" to the Library of Congress) enabled him to gather the other rebels he knew so well as editors of small literary magazines; and by his second term in the leading national poetry slot (he's one of only four who have served twice), his office had become central for welcoming poets from other nations as well.

AGAINST THE GRAIN is a charming memoir of a well-mannered man whose photos generally featured the expected suit and tie, as well as family and friends. It's diffident, wryly humorous, even in its telling, which Whittemore does in the third person, commenting on what "R" is up to. In fact, it's so gentle and smooth that the outline it draws together -- of 60 years of writing and publishing poetry and establishing bibliographies of others, notably the poet/doctor from Paterson, NJ (WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS: POET FROM JERSEY, 1975) -- becomes a towering mountain of detail that you've walked up so slowly that each vista is startling.

That's a lot like Whittemore's poems, which taste like the most secure and educated second half of the twentieth century. Whittemore wasn't immune from tragedy -- he and his wife Helen lost their son Jack at age 37, for instance -- but poetry wasn't where he painted that. Poetry instead was where he rebeled: against boredom, against national follies like wars (yes, even the one in Iraq), against what seemed outmoded in form. Founding the literary magazine FURIOSO with his Yale roommate Jim Angleton before 1940, and later establishing THE CARLETON MISCELLANY, he reached out to America's poets and their work.

Much of the detail in the memoir gained from publisher Merrill Leffler's fascination with "R" and his life and work -- Leffler dug through archives, reminded Whittemore about poets, asked for explanations. I suspect multiple readings will continue to delight most who've plowed all the way through. The index is workable, mostly useful for names (look up Joseph Brodsky, Howard Nemerov, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot) -- add your own side-notes for topics, though, in order to retrace things like the invention of the "Shaggy" poem.

I liked best the chapter on Whittemore's two-week visit to the Soviet Union, where he kept stumbling over his own sympathy with the literary rebels being silenced or ejected by the USSR at that time, like Solzhenitsyn. It's loaded with entries from his journal, as well as from the official report on how he'd done as an ambassador. Working on the memoir while agonizing about the war in Iraq, he retrieved some of his observations published in 1974:

Soviet defensiveness is hard for an American to understand because we this we have been defensively holding them off for three-quarters of a century. But it is obvious that they think they will not survive if they can't keep us out -- us in the form of our decadence, nihilism, immorality and anti-social individualism as much as our money and our prattling about the freedoms. Not just our soldiers and shekels but the whole capitalist "sickness" is what they fear, from modernism to Coca-Cola.

I've marked a dozen pages in the memoir that especially struck me, shed light on relationships of poets and politics, or revealed the "wry and deflating humor" that is Whittemore's (that's the phrase in his Wikipedia entry!). But let me wrap this up with one of R's most quoted poems, one that is sure to remain applicable to the nation's capital and its sense of self in the globe. Now that I've spent a couple of months immersed in this long tale of East Coast and nationalized American poetry, I'll be listening for more Whittemore material, and not just on Garrison Keillor's programs.


When Washington has been destroyed,
And the pollutants have been silting up for an age,
Then the old town will attract the world's Schliemanns.
What, they will say, a dig! as they uncover
The L'Enfant plan in the saxifrage.

So many plaques, so many figures in marble
With large shoulders and lawman lips
Will have to be pieced together and moved to the new
That the mere logistics will delight vips.

For how can one pass by a muchness? There will be fund drives
With uplifting glosses,
Teams of researchers will mass with massive machinery
At the Rayburn ruin
To outscoop Athens and Knossos.

Dusty Scholars will stumble in, looking nearsightedly
At gray facades
Of pillar and portal,
And at curious acres of asphalt,
For clues to the mystery of that culture's gods.

Money of course they will miss,
Since money is spoke not at all on the plaques there,
Nor will they shovel up evidence
That the occupants of the chambers and cloakrooms
Were strangers in town, protecting their deities elsewhere,

But sanctums they surely will guess at,
Where the real and true pieties were once expressed.
If the Greeks had their Elusinians,
Surely this tribe on the Potomac had mysteries too?
--Having to do, perhaps, with the "Wild West"?

Like most of us sitting here now beside the Potomac,
They will find the Potomac primitives hard to assess.
Oh, may their ignorance be, than ours,
At least less!

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