Conrad Aiken Takes a Desk Job

from Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987 by William McGuire (Library of Congress, 1988):

In 1950, “Aiken took the Chair (‘only once in my life—a year tutoring at Harvard—have I had a desk job’), and he and his wife settled into a house in the southeast section on Capitol Hill, a few blocks from the Library.”


Aiken wrote to his daughter that the job provided “so little to do that I am bored except when I can do work of my own…It’s largely a matter of receiving visitors and answering peculiar questions and turning down invitations to speak or read…The best thing is my office, generally reputed to be the handsomest in the city, top floor, overlooking Capitol on one side and Supreme Court on tother, with view out to river and country too—all Washington. A fine stone balcony on which to perch, too. And a nice english gal as permanent assistant, who is of course really the Chair of Poetry and does the real drudgery…Washington is dull, I think, like something abandoned by a World’s Fair…”

The “nice english gal” was Phyllis Armstrong, who served as Special Assistant in Poetry from 1946 until her retirement in 1970. She held the longest tenure as administrative head of the Poetry Office, serving under fifteen U.S. Poets Laureate. Aiken was her fifth.

While serving as Poetry Consultant, Conrad Aiken‘s play, “Mr. Arcularis” received it’s world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, DC on May 8, 1950.  The play had first been workshopped by the Provincetown Players and presented as a radio play on the Philco Hour on NBC Radio, but the Arena Stage run preceded its run on Broadway and starred Tony Award-winner Lester Rawlins, character actor Dick O’Neill, and  a young Pernell Roberts, who would go on to television fame as the older Cartwright brother on TV’s Bonanza television show.  Arena Stage had not yet built their own theater, so the production took place at The Hippodrome, which billed itself as “Washington’s Only Playhouse In the Round” and fully air-conditioned during the Summer months.

Conrad Aiken meets with members of the cast of “Mr. Arcularis,” 1950.