Reed Whittemore served as U.S. Poet Laureate twice: from 1964 to 1965, and again from 1984 to 1985. His lecture, “The Happy Genius of the Household: The William Carlos Williams Centennial Lecture” was recorded on November 1, 1983 in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. Excerpts are presented here.
As most of you probably know William Carlos Williams was once troublesome for the Library of Congress. But the Library survived. The Library is a survivor. It doesn’t look for trouble but it does look for poets and it is tough enough, I think, to handle the trouble that the poets it finds sometimes bring. If it can’t handle the trouble, the whole country is in trouble.
The Library is not only a great institution but also a key institution. It is strategically located to stir up friction between the troublemakers turning out books, and of course poems, and the perpetual purifiers of our national soul. The friction is a tonic for us. Maybe. What I am saying is that keeping the Library in trouble is a practical, patriotic way of carrying on the perpetual national fight for freedom of thought and speech, against the purifiers. If the fighting doesn’t destroy the Library and the Librarian and John Broderick, and the Poetry Consultant.
* * *
[Williams] never was a political troublemaker of interest. For instance, he never was the “Red” that he was alleged to be in the McCarthy year of 1952, when he was asked to be the Poetry Consultant here. He was about as far Left as Al Smith, whom he voted for in 1928, and I hope that no one at the Library now would take seriously the Red charge against him that the Librarian of Congress Luther Evans did take seriously in 1952. The library had nothing, of course, to do with the charge against him, but it bent to the charge and produced the result that Williams was unable to serve as Consultant at all. I find the Library more at fault here than Williams. You may read my account in my Williams biography, if you can find a copy. And you can read a defense of the Library’s position in Roy Basler‘s volume, The Muse and the Librarian. But my point here hasn’t got anything to do with the Library. My point is that the political allegation against Williams was a misfire. Williams did not need, did not want the Communist Party or any other party to help him be a troublemaker. He wanted to be a troublemaker on his own. That makes him a true, totally loyal American. I mean this and refer you to my title “Happy Genius of the Household,” which is the last line of his early poem “Danse Russe,” which describes his kind of troublemaking:
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely.
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
I would say that poem was more Czarist than Communist. [Audience laughter] even though I don’t know much about Russian dances. Williams went to ballets, loved to dance, was an admirer of Isadora Duncan and had probably seen many a Danse Russe. But the troublemaking in the poem is not Russe. It is all American. It tells of a private act by the poet performed while those near to him were asleep. It is narcissistic. It is also defiantly exhibitionistic. But notice how decorous the defiance is: he defied the world while the world was asleep and pulled down the shade to do it. [Laughter]
Poem in public domain.
Reed Whittemore (1919 - 2012) is the author of thirteen books of poetry, including The Self-Made Man (1959), The Mother's Breast & The Father's House (1974), and The Past, The Future, The Present: Poems Selected and New (1990). His memoir, Against the Grain, was published in 2007. Among other honors, he twice served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (1964 - 65 and 1984 - 85); in addition, he was the Poet Laureate of Maryland, an Award of Merit recipient from the Academy of American Poets, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Whittemore was the literary editor of the New Republic, and in a distinguished teaching career, taught at Carleton College and The University of Maryland.