The Bird Cage

Contemporary U.S. Poets Laureate tend not to live in Washington, DC for their terms, “commuting” in only as needed for meetings, public readings and lectures. But early on, this was not the case.

When Allen Tate was offered the position in April 1943 by librarian Archibald MacLeish, as William McGuire writes in Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987, Tate “…wired from Tennessee, ‘Caroline consents so I shall consider it final.’ Tate and his wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon, arrived in Washington in July. They rented a house in the Anacostia section, called ‘The Bird Cage,’ allegedly after a whorehouse in a novel by their friend Brainard Cheney. The house was shared at various times by Cheney and his wife Frances, Katherine Anne Porter, and John Peale Bishop. Tate’s term was explicitly set at one year; the stipend was $3,500 for the part-time appointment.”

The house still stands, in the Penn Branch neighborhood of SE DC. Frances Cheney was hired as secretary of the poetry office (the second to serve in that position, after Audrey Wurdemann), and she took leave from her position as librarian at Vanderbilt University to work with Tate, leaving DC when he did, in 1944.

“The Bird Cage,” 3418 Highwood Drive SE, Washington, DC. Photo by Dan Vera.