Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress

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The Last Word: The Poet and the Poem From the Library of Congress: Poets Laureate on Public Radio, 1977-2014

by Grace Cavalieri | February 2015, AWP

The Writer's Chronicle

After twenty years live-on–air, from DC’s WPFW-FM, “The Poet and the Poem” moved to the Library of Congress in 1997; and it is still going strong. I’d like to share some of the unforgettable remarks our audiences heard. In 1987, Richard Wilbur came, and when asked “what he wanted from his poetry,” his answer was “to keep writing more poetry.” Wilbur had a one-year service followed by Howard Nemerov’s second appointment to The Library, from 1988 to 1990. Nemerov: “We write a little first because it comes to us, and no doubt when we’re long gone and out of range, people will know that it was our autobiography but that doesn’t bother us. We hope every poem is new at a different point in time. Shakespeare tells the same stories over and over in so many guises that it takes a long time before you notice. When I was young I got a job in advertising and lasted less than a week because I realized that I was being asked to lie, and I thought if I betrayed language, then language will betray me and I quit.” About awards: “Bring ’em on. Awards have money and buy time to work on poetry.”


Robert Pinsky had a three–year tenure, 1997-2000. A major work of Pinsky was his translation of Dante: “The more profound aspects of the project were working unconsciously, but consciously it was the love of difficulty that made me do it and makes everyone do things. Everyone loves difficulty and for most people who are experts—athletes, football or basketball stars—even kids in video arcades—fascination is what fuels it.” Joseph Brodsky, 1991-1992, talked about learning English in the Soviet labor camp by translating the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Of American poetry he said, “It’s a remarkable poetry. A tremendous poetry. It’s a nonstop sermon of human autonomy of individualism and self-reliance. It’s poetry hard to escape. It has its own faults but it doesn’t suffer the self-aggrandizement of European work where a poet regards himself as a public figure just by writing poetry. I praise the generous spirit of American poetry especially during the last century. It’s poetry of responsibility for fellow human beings.”


Billy Collins, 2001–2003: “In America, the Poet Laureate can more or less find his own ticket in the job and define the job as he goes along. Well we don’t have a prose laureate; we don’t have a short story laureate, or a film director laureate; it’s just poetry, so it does say something about poetry, doesn’t it, to the centrality and the deep significance of what poetry is to our culture.” In 2003–2004, Louise Glück held the chair. “We are going to write what most concerns us, what quickens the mind, and then we turn the subjects over with as much resourceful and complex a touch as possible. I wish poetry were not read as autobiography, although of course, it draws all the materials of life. We have to contend with the idea of mortality; we all, at some point, love, with the risks involved, the vulnerabilities involved, the disappointments and great thrills of passion, so what you use is the self as a laboratory in which to practice, master, what seem to you central dilemmas.” Robert Hass, 1995–1997: “It must have been the early ’70s. One of the things I was thinking about during the years of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War was the way in which our imagination of Western politics has gone wrong; so I set myself the task of trying to read through some of the thinkers like Hobbes who give us our ways of thinking about government. The first thing that struck me about our democratic capitalist ways of thinking about societies is that they always begin in the idea of some Robinson Crusoe figure, some male appropriating, changing property and then building up into notions of men in competition with each other over the world’s goods which then of course Adam Smith picked up and said, ‘Ah, but this is a magical system. Everything turns out fine. Prices get set. People get the best goods,’ and so on. It’s an imagination.”


Prior to 1986, before Congress designated “Consultants in Poetry” to be renamed “Poets Laureate,” Josephine Jacobsen occupied the office from 1971–1973. Speaking of her poem, “Let Each Man Remember,” she said, “That poem has helped people directly. I’ve heard from strangers that this poem got them through something. ‘This is something I kept on my bed table.’ The greatest thing you can feel is that a poem really has helped another human being in a bad time.” William Meredith was in residence 1978–80. “I wait until the poem seems to be addressed not to The Occupant but toWilliam Meredith and it doesn’t happen a lot. Poetry and experience should have an exact ratio. Astonishingly, experience doesn’t happen very often.”


Donald Hall came to the library in 2006–2007 and spoke about his association with T.S. Eliot. He talked of meeting Eliot in his London office. Eliot had visited Harvard and had invited Hall to see him when he arrived in England. Donald Hall remembered, “Of course, I thought this was absolutely terrifying because Eliot was the king of the mountain in a way that no one has been king of the mountain since. I was probably so deferential, I must’ve been disgusting.” As Hall was leaving the visit, Eliot lingered in the doorway and said, “Let me see. Forty years ago I was going from Harvard to Oxford. Now you are going from Harvard to Oxford. What advice may I give you?” He waited just a second and said, “Do you have any long underwear?” Well we don't have a prose laureate; we don't have a short story laureate, or a film director laureate; it's just poetry, so it does say something about poetry, doesn't it, to the centrality and the deep significance of what poetry is to our culture. Ted Kooser was the Laureate in 2004–2006. Kooser explained why he wrote poetry: “It’s an attempt to keep some very ordinary people alive.” And of his The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser said “I believe in old fashioned communication and if you don’t believe in that, you have no business with this book; it’s about the things that the poet does best—working with metaphor, fine tuning metaphor. I believe in people first, and poetry as a means to dignify ordinary lives.”


Kay Ryan, 2008–2010, compressed thoughts within a narrow poem which she called “the size of a pocket comb.” Ryan: “It is laughable to say that any poetry is impersonal because the motive is terribly personal, and if you wind up writing about a cup, there’s some personal way you are approaching its dimension, or color, or placement of the universe. We can’t hide ourselves. Poetry, however apparently impersonal, allows us to hide, and if you have hidden you’ve really failed it. That means you’ve perhaps written something that already has been written. Because then your words would be directly behind someone else’s words and they wouldn’t exist independently.”


Charles Simic came aboard from 2007–2008. He spoke of his relationship with Richard Hugo, who became his friend. “I bumped into Hugo in San Francisco in a restaurant and we were talking and Hugo said, ’What did you do this summer?’” This was 1972. Simic answered, “Well, I went back to Belgrade.” Hugo said, “Belgrade!” And he started describing Belgrade, “Here’s the Danube… Here’s the main train station… Here’s the bridge…” Simic said, “You’ve been there? You visited Belgrade?” Hugo said “No, I used to bomb it two or three times a week.” Simic blurted out, “I was down there.”


Mark Strand was Laureate in 1990 and 1991. “The landscape of my summers in Nova Scotia were an important influence. I tended to mythologize them, so I could draw on this when I need a landscape. Living in Utah, the world of my poems now is a mountainous one, and it’s not so green or blue, but more red and tan. There are some snowstorms in it, the likes of which don’t appear in my earlier poems. Sometimes the landscape is décor, not central to the poem.” Philip Levine, 2011–2012, said, “Oh yes, I’ve changed! I remember, it was in the ’60s. I was teaching and reading in Squaw Valley, California in the summer. Galway Kinnell was teaching there, we team-taught, the two of us. And, at one moment, Galway was talking, ‘I prize this Levine poem,’ and I forget what the poem was, ‘because of its profound tenderness.’ “And I said to myself, tenderness? Why the hell isn’t there more tenderness in my poetry? And I realized that I needed more of that, for one thing my anger, which featured in my first couple of books, was diminishing, diminishing.”


Natasha Trethewey took the post in 2012, and was there until 2014. “I think I start with the deepest truths which are for me often historical truths. I am, of course, as you say, interested in investigating the self, and making sense of my place in the world. And it seems to me the only way to do it is to make sense of my place in the continuum of history. What are those things that happened in the past that have everything to do with this moment, and me in it? Poetry is exciting to me because it is about discovery; and of course so is doing research. And they naturally go together for me.”


Reed Whittemore had been a poetry consultant two times before the chair was termed “Laureate,” 1964–65 and 1984–85. Whittemore was an authority on the small magazine movement in America and, in fact, was partly responsible for the first periodicals to exist—he coordinated Association of Literary Magazines of America (ALMA), which evolved to Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM). “The Dial was a highly intellectual magazine in the mid-19thcentury, and the Atlantic Monthly, and, I guess, Harper’s, were all sort of the same. Then along came the popular magazines, like the Saturday Evening Post, and it became evident that there was such a thing as a popular audience in America. Suddenly, democracy was raising its head, since those magazines were commercially based, that is, they needed capital to get started and they needed large audiences to survive. This provoked a kind of reaction among people who were not very much concerned with money. Pound was of course an extreme example. So you have a funny conflict going on here between the new world of big magazines and this subculture.”


Poetry, however apparently impersonal, allows us to hide, and if you have hidden you've really failed it.

Stanley Kunitz’s second Library term was 2000 to 2001; he spoke as historian and poet. “In the very early part in the century we were still writing in the manner of the poets of the century before, inheriting the poets of the so-called Golden Age and a very elite group of people, highly educated, representing the wealthy and powerful of the nation. Poets as opposed to Walt Whitman who, for the first time, realized that we lacked as a country a great myth of our creation, the creation of the democratic spirit; and this is what makes him such a significant figure. And we’ve had to contend with another voice that comes out of the puritanical sensibility of the early settlers, their inheritance of a moralistic approach to human experience and there’s been a problem in this country of how to accept an art that is so free in spirit and so articulate about the wrongs of not only humanity but society.”


W.S. Merwin, 2010–2011, arrived with a strong purpose—poetry translation. Merwin said, “Everyone is quite happy to remind us the translation of poetry is impossible. It’s not because it’s possible that we do it; but is because we have to do it—it’s a necessity. Actually speech is impossible if you go by the laws of mathematics. I could say ‘thank you’ it doesn’t mean anything but is the only way we can say thank you, and so we try to do that with words. I think poetry began when language began for that same reason. I think poetry is about expressing what cannot be expressed. Translation is just as essential and just as possible.”


Rita Dove, 1993–1995, on her book Thomas and Beulah: “First, and most difficult, was a moral issue. How can I presume to write about my grandparents’ lives, to take on the voices and say this is what they would have said if they had the opportunity? What helped was when I asked my mother for some details from childhood, and she never asked to see a single poem. I gained confidence from my mother’s trust that I would not do anything to embarrass the family. There were other challenges—for instance to decide how much was going to be strictly autobiographical. At what point do I begin to invent? My grandmother’s name was not Beulah but Georgianna, and that was one aesthetic decision I had to make. Georgianna is a wonderful name but it was too male-based for the book, and the second name has biblical connections that were wanted for the book. Also the very long name is a difficult thing to fit on a line, to be practical, so once I knew I didn’t have to be absolutely faithful to biographical truth I could go after an inner truth. That freed me.”


The series wishes to acknowledge the Library of Congress, the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and the Reva and David Logan Foundation for support, plus NPR distribution, and The Pacifica Network.


See also: "Poetry is in the Air: The Poet & The Poem" by Grace Cavalieri, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Spring 2010: http://washingtonart.com/beltway/poet&thepoem.html


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Grace Cavalieri currently celebrates thirty-seven years on-air as founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem.” The series is recorded at The Library of Congress for public radio. She’s the author of sixteen books of poems and twenty-six produced plays. Cavalieri holds AWP’s 2013 George Garrett Award, and she is the monthly poetry columnist/reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books.

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