The position of Poet Laureate Consultant has evolved over time from the one first held by the now largely forgotten and unread Joseph Auslander. One could say the position has evolved to suit the needs and personalities of each occupant. This would perhaps be true. But it is certainly the case that some poets have made a greater impact on the position.
Some of the contributions of these poets are well known, or perhaps it’s more honest to say that some are better remembered—for delving into the history of the position of Poet Laureate shows the humbling nature of time to the memories of poets and their poetry. All of these poets were so esteemed in their time to receive the accolades of their profession and the honor of the Laureateship. Yet so many of them are footnotes in the history of American poetry and largely forgotten and never read.
I would like to highlight four of these Laureates whose contributions to the position should be recognized as seminal to the development of the role of poetry at the Library of Congress. It is my belief that the experiences of Joseph Auslander, William Carlos Williams, James Dickey, and Maxine Kumin reveal how the role of poetry consultant has evolved and the ways in which the Library of Congress has served to support and shield the autonomy of the “catbird seat” of American poetry.
Auslander and MacLeish
Joseph Auslander holds the distinction as the longest-serving poet in the position originally called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. However, his four-year term is an achievement that seems less impressive in light of the fact that Auslander saw the position as a lifetime appointment. After all, he had managed to nurture a close relationship with Archer M. Huntington, the railroad and shipping magnate who endowed the salary for the position, and chose Auslander for the post. Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress who had managed a number of gifts from Huntington to the Library, did not quibble with the request and appointed Auslander to the new position in 1937. Auslander was secure in his sinecure, which included a paid position for his wife, the poet Audrey Wurdemann, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed the energetic Archibald MacLeish as Librarian of Congress in 1939.
MacLeish, who had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his book Conquistador, took a great interest in the poetry position at the Library. Unfortunately for Auslander, MacLeish found the current occupant lacking. In one of the more colorful descriptors I’ve come across, MacLeish once described Auslander to Ezra Pound as “a word fellow” with “the labial not to say digital dexterity of a masturbating monkey and as little fecundity.” One imagines MacLeish was more diplomatic in his dealings with Huntington. After all, Auslander had been the choice of the Library’s great benefactor. MacLeish proved successful in his dealing with Huntington, who agreed to change the consultantship to a yearly appointment—all the better to recognize the finest in American poetry and create an award that would become, in MacLeish’s words, “one of the greatest distinctions in American letters.” With this one move MacLeish, who never held the position himself, perhaps had the greatest impact on the consultantship in poetry. He detailed his ideas about the post in 1939:
“…first, it should bring to the Library of Congress a practising poet able and willing to answer the inquiries about American and English poetry which occasional readers may bring in, and to have general supervision of the collection in a non-technical way; and, secondly, to offer to practising poets a place where for a period of a year or two a man may have time and access to the Library for the purposes of his work.”
But Auslander was not yet finished with the position. He consented to the change but still hoped to secure reappointment and undertook a flurry of activity in the waning year of his term. After three years of little activity in the position, Auslander instituted the first readings of poetry at the Library in the winter of 1941. Robinson Jeffers was the inaugural reader in February 27, 1941, when he spoke to an overflow crowd of what the Washington Post described as “hundreds of Washingtonians, Supreme Court justices, Government workers, Cabinet officers” in the Jefferson Building’s Coolidge Auditorium. Jeffers was followed in the Spring by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benét, e.e cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Conrad Aiken, and Mark Van Doren. Even if it seems in hindsight a transparent attempt to curry favor, Auslander deserves credit for successfully instituting what has become the central activity of the office of the Poet Laureate. Indeed, the position is unimaginable without the yearly series of readings by visiting poets that remain a highlight of Washington’s poetry scene. Auslander’s efforts were not enough to secure reappointment to the position and MacLeish, after having approached Benét and Sandburg, appointed Allen Tate as the second Poet Laureate. MacLeish would appoint two more laureates including Robert Penn Warren and the first woman to hold the position, Louise Bogan.
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was offered the position on numerous occasions before 1952, when he officially accepted the Consultantship. By then, he was one of the most respected poets of his time. Indeed, the offer to Williams epitomized MacLeish’s understanding of the position as a laurel to those who had shown great service to poetry. Had Williams held the position, there is no doubt he would have been the most regarded poet after Robert Frost to have held the consultancy and certainly one of the most influential. That Williams could stride the divide between formal poets and free verse is a testament to his acclaim and respect in the eyes of his contemporaries.
Williams had initially hesitated, given his advanced age, but finally accepted the position and travelled to Washington to see about arrangements for him and his wife. The Williams’s intended to rent out the Capitol Hill apartment Conrad Aiken had used during his time in the office. But this was not to be.
Since 1947, all appointments to federal posts had been subject to a “loyalty investigation.” This was the post-war period and Washington was in the throes of the McCarthy witchhunts. Williams had filled out the required paperwork and stated he had never been a member of any Communist organization. But a week after the press release announcing his appointment, the attacks and accusations began to arise from right-wing publications. They pointed to Williams’s signature on petitions, during World War II, calling for greater cooperation with (our then wartime ally) Russia. Williams had also called for the elimination of McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. Letters repeating the same charges began to arrive in the Librarian of Congress’s office. The Librarian’s official reply amounted to “we didn’t know these charges when we appointed him and can’t verify them as Williams is ‘seriously ill.'” Of note in these attacks was one from the Lyric Foundation, which called Williams’s work “the very voice of Communism” in a nationally circulated flyer. The vice president of the Lyric Foundation was none other than one Audrey Wurdemann, or as she was identified, Mrs. Joseph Auslander.
More attacks began to arrive from citizens and members of Congress, including then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. A Hearst newspapers columnist attacked Librarian of Congress Luther Evans for “running a sort of employment service for indigent Left-wingers.” This charge was especially laughable as Evans had more than proven himself a conservative. Karl Shapiro recalled Evans’s first greeting to him upon interviewing for the consultancy: “Shapiro, we don’t won’t want any Communists or cocksuckers in this Library.” Reed Whittemore, who later held the consultancy on two separate occasions, wrote in his sterling biography of Williams that Evans’s actions were “uncivil and dictatorial.”
Williams knew nothing about the furor boiling over in Washington. When word came to him in Paterson, New Jersey, he began a furious denial of the charges. He received a formal letter from the Library informing him that once the Loyalty Board received Williams’s FBI report, he would have the right to be represented by counsel. Williams at once retained an attorney who informed the staff at the Library that Williams had already accepted the position and secured housing and had every right to his salary and position. In a fit of pique, Evans canceled the appointment and the loyalty investigation. It was a Kafkaesque situation in which Williams now had no right to the results of a Loyalty Board inquiry that could clear him of the insinuations and attacks made on his character. His friends rallied to his aid, with poets writing or travelling to Washington to lobby for Williams. Finally, in April of 1953, the Library reinstated the appointment—two months before the end of what would have been his term. There was no apology for the ordeal the Library had put Williams through, nor any offer to extend the term of the “appointment.” Evans left the Library to assume the chairmanship of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and it was left to his successor, Lewis Mumford, to clean up the mess. Williams still awaited the results of the report that would clear him of the charges and an explanation as to what had transpired. The tide in the country was turning and editorialists wrote in defense of Williams and shock at his treatment by the Library. The former Librarian of Congress MacLeish wrote to Mumford,
“I am troubled for your sake and for the Library’s sake about the . . . Williams matter . . . I would rather see all the Fulton Lewises and Joe McCarthys in Washington howling for your blood than see the writers and the artists of the republic suspicious of your concern for the freedom by which they live.”
Williams would never receive satisfaction in the case, telling the New York Post he was “in as much of a cloud as ever” as to why he had been treated that way. The whole ordeal represents the lowest moment in the history of the poetry consultantship at the Library of Congress. That most poets and lovers of Williams still believe he could not hold the position due to ill health wrongly absolves the Library from responsibility for one of its most egregious actions. This widespread misconception minimizes the great affront on the poet and his steadfast campaign against those who attempted, and the government institutions that colluded with, an attempt to destroy a poet’s career and deny him his much- merited laurels.
The consultancy of James Dickey stands as one of the most experimental and hard-charging terms in the history of the position. Dickey was appointed in 1966 by Lewis Mumford to succeed Stephen Spender and had been informed as to the responsibilities of the position—to consult with the staff on matters relating to the poetry collections at the Library and answer all inquiries from Congress and citizens. Dickey agreed but once in place shook the position up with his characteristic aplomb.
On his first day on the job, Dickey arrived at the Library of Congress in a brand new Corvette Sting Ray. He was quick to call a press conference where he informed the assembled reporters that he would not be a “paper-shuffling desk clerk,” leaving that to the Library’s staff. He then answered any and all questions that came his way about drug usage and his opinions of current poets. He expressed his love of Theodore Roethke and his disdain for Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frost. In an interview with the Washington Post titled “Ex-Adman Dickey: Don’t Just Wait for Oblivion,” he stated his desire to “get every guy to sit down and have a beer with his soul.” The publicity surrounding the appointment certainly gave the position much-needed attention.
Dickey made other changes to the position, including instituting the tradition of paired readings and hosting an impressive series of readings by poets who were often surprised by the invitation. For years Donald Hall and Dickey had not been on good-speaking terms, but he was invited to read alongside William Stafford, who would hold the consultancy two years after Dickey. Stafford was famous for his pacifist stance and had been a conscientious objector during World War II, so he would seem an odd choice for a Laureate whose work glorified combat and the heroic necessity of war. Still, Dickey appreciated his poetry enough to offer the invitation to the peace poet and his adversary Hall.
Dickey kept a furious pace of travel around the country giving readings to colleges and poetry clubs upon invitation. He judged various prizes and kept up the kind of correspondence that was natural for the position. Of note in his term was his defense of the value and worth of poetry. He’d been invited by the president of the National League of American Pen Women to give a reading for fifty dollars. Dickey replied asking if the president would pay a doctor with peanuts and demanding seven hundred dollars for the reading. The president was a member of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire and the society’s chair Raymond Swain wrote letters of complaint to Dickey and to his senators. When the letters reached the office of the Librarian of Congress, Mumford came to Dickey’s defense. Dickey then wrote to Swain and admitted that he was guilty of being a “literary snob.” “Yes indeed: I not only affirm it; I insist on it: I believe in values, and I will uphold them now and from now on. Since we live by money, value ought to be paid for, and should not be given away save by the decision of the person involved.”
The incident shows Dickey’s willingness, much like previous laureate Randall Jarrell, to make his opinions on poetry known. This willingness is best seen in his battles with the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, which not only took offense at his demands for fair compensation but also Dickey’s critical comments on the value of Robert Frost‘s work. In a review of a Frost biography in the Atlantic Monthly, Dickey poked holes in the image of Frost as the “kindly, forbearing, energetic, hardworking, good-neighborly” Yankee archetype, writing, “The persona of the Frost Story was made year by year, poem by poem, of elements of the actual life Frost lived, reinterpreted by the exigencies of the persona.” It’s worth noting that Dickey’s biographer Henry Hart has stated that the same could be said of Dickey’s painstaking cultivation of persona throughout his career. But it is worth remembering that Frost had only recently died and was still revered and remained the best-known poet in the popular imagination. To criticize such an important figure was controversial and provided the fodder for the Poetry Society of New Hampshire to wage a vendetta on Dickey. The group also attacked him for the contents of his published poems and mounted a campaign to pressure congressmen to force the Librarian to eject Dickey as consultant. Mumford, perhaps remembering the furor that met him as he arrived at the Library—the institution’s ignominious behavior toward William Carlos Williams—refused to give in to calls for Dickey’s removal. Instead he reappointed him to a second term.
Maxine Kumin was not the first woman to hold the post of Poetry Consultant. She was in fact the fifth. But it could be argued that she was the first female Consultant to forcefully and unapologetically take the position on her own terms. Kumin’s appointment had been suggested by her predecessor, William Meredith, himself the first gay, albeit closeted, Consultant. In Kumin’s opinion the Library was a “gentility-ridden, traditional, hidebound place.” She once commented in the middle of a Council of Scholars meeting that she felt as if she had “stumbled into a stag club and ought to leap out of a cake.” She arrived in Washington as the political winds were changing once again. She spoke out against increased military spending and was attacked by the conservative Heritage Foundation, or as she called them, “right-wing princelings of darkness.” As in the case of Dickey two decades before, detractors took issue with one of her poems and called her a pornographic poet. Their real problem was that Kumin proved herself one of the most politically engaged poets in the position. She opposed the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, and the Library, ever subject to the political winds, was uncomfortable coming to her defense. Kumin has written that she was accused by Daniel J. Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, of “abusing the hospitality of the Library.”
However onerous a term it was for Kumin, her impact was felt in the position. She was a forceful advocate for diversity in the Library and can be credited with the additional women who came to serve on the Library’s Council of Scholars. The poet Adrienne Rich, who had turned down a stunning six prior invitations to appear at the Library, gave a reading in April of 1981 to a capacity crowd in the Coolidge Auditorium. The Washington Post reported that tickets had been sold out for weeks. Rich was only the beginning. The diversity of poets who read in Kumin’s term is impressive even by today’s standards, not only for their identities but for the radicalism of their work: black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, Richard Shelton from Arizona, and the Pueblo poet Leslie Marmon Silko, these last two meeting Kumin’s goal to tackle the perennial underrepresentation of Western voices in readings at the Library. Kumin also enjoyed her interactions with local poets, commenting that “Washington is not alien territory for the muse… There’s an awful lot of good stuff going on here . . . an extraordinary degree of amity among Washington poets. You hang together. You’d be hard-pressed to find that in Manhattan.” She was in a good position to know as she was one of the last poets in the position to actually move and live in Washington. She put down her roots and went so far as to bring her horse with her.
It is not hard to imagine that the institional powers-that-be found it difficult to be prodded by a stalwart defender of diversity. Kumin had good reason to push—at the time of her appointment the position had only had one African American, Robert Hayden, and only four women had served. Kumin relates a very public exchange that occured at the news conference announcing her appointment. Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress at the time, was asked about the lack of diversity in the position and replied, “We don’t count [heads],” to which Kumin interjected, “We do.” This may account for the odd practice of the Library refusing to publish her valedictory address—a common practice with consultants’ lectures. It may also account for the Library’s refusal to invite Kumin to a second term.
The Library of Congress is an institution of the government and as such has moved through open and closed periods in its history. The same can be said for the Laureateship, which is a program of the Library. There were times when a poet in the position could explore, stretch and demand for change. As we have seen, the Library has responded to such advocacy differently over the years. The difference seems to have had much to do with the support of the Librarian of Congress. It is hoped that the current and future Librarians will always heed the words of a predecessor, Archibald MacLeish, who wrote: “the Librarian of Congress must be the foremost champion of intellectual and spiritual freedom in the country.”
Henry Hart, James Dickey: The World As A Lie, Picador, 2000.
Maxine Kumin, Always Beginning: Essays On A Life In Poetry, Copper Canyon, 2000.
William McGuire, Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987, Library of Congress, 1988.
Reed Whittemore, William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Hugh Witemeyer ed., Pound/Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, New Directions, 1996.
This essay originally appeared in Volume 10:4, Fall 2009.
Dan Vera is the co-editor of the anthology Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2016), and author of two poetry collections: Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2013), and The Space Between Our Danger and Delight (Beothuk Books, 2008). Vera’s work is featured online at the Poetry Foundation website and in college and university curricula, various journals, and anthologies including Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology, the bilingual Al pie de la Casa Blanca/Knocking on the Door of The White House: Latino and Latina Poets in Washington, D.C., Queer South, Divining Divas, and Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. A CantoMundo and Macondo writing fellow, he’s a recipient of the Oscar Wilde Award for Poetry and the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, as well as grants and fellowships from the DC Commission of the Arts & Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. His other projects include the small literary presses Poetry Mutual and Souvenir Spoon Books, and co-curating the literary history website, DC Writers' Homes. Born and raised in South Texas, he lives in Washington, DC. For more visit http://www.danvera.com. To read more by Dan Vera: Dan Vera: Winter 2006; Dan Vera: Evolving City Issue; Dan Vera: Split This Rock Issue; Dan Vera's Introduction to the US Poets Laureate Issue,Fall 2009; Dan Vera: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue; Dan Vera: Floricanto Issue.