Patricia Gray

Poetry Behind the Scenes at the Library of Congress

Volume 15:4, Fall 2014
A Splendid Wake Issue

Detail from the “Lyric Poetry” mural by Henry G. Walker, courtesy of the Library of Congress

When walking through the halls of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, it is difficult not to think of the footsteps of great poets of the past 80 years who trod the same marble floors. The building’s interior is very similar to what it would have been when they were here.   In fact, just to the right near the main door is a wonderfully ornate room dedicated to lyric poetry, for when the building opened in 1897, poetry was thought to be a hallmark of a civilized nation. The U.S. considered itself a young country and was eager to prove its stature in the arts—including poetry—and in the sciences. As Paul Simon might say, there was “poetry in the architecture,” but there was no live poetry to be heard.

That lack was about to be remedied in 1937, when the Library began to establish a poetry presence in the Nation’s Capital, thanks to a gift from railroad heir Archer M. Huntington, who wrote poetry himself. Huntington funded the “Chair in English Poetry,” a position which evolved into “Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress,” and finally, in 1987, into “Poet Laureate/Consultant to the Library”—or just, casually, US Poet Laureate. Huntington had in mind, and Librarian Herbert Putnam agreed, that Joseph Auslander of New York, should fill the new Chair.

Auslander might not have been exactly the right person for the Chair, but Huntington had definitely picked the right place to set up the position. Though he couldn’t have foreseen it, five years in the future, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would choose a poet to head the Library of Congress itself. Archibald MacLeish accepted the Librarianship only after a lot of cajoling by FDR (see Poetry’s Catbird Seat, pp. 50-51). Very soon after MacLeish took office, he established an evening reading series, and the Library would reign for almost 50 years as the place in the city to see, hear, and talk with leading poets of day. (The program continues to this day but has been joined by other fine programs bringing exceptionally gifted poets to the DC-Metro area.)

All this, however, is merely background for the true subject of this article, and that is the remarkable women who steered the Poetry Office throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. These staff members were often gifted poets themselves. At first, they were dubbed “secretaries,” then “poetry assistants,” and finally “heads” of the Poetry Office, or as it was latter called, the Poetry and Literature Center (PLC). These staffers saw to it that the Library’s poetry programming continued through thick and thin. They propelled programs forward, designed or shaped them, and provided continuity between the rather short-lived terms of the Consultants or Laureates. The first Poetry Office staff position was held by Audrey Wurdemann under the consultantship of Joseph Auslander. When Auslander came aboard, Wurdemann did too.  She was his wife.

Audrey Wurdemann with Joseph Auslander, date unknown.

Audrey Wurdemann with Joseph Auslander, date unknown.

They remained a close team throughout his tenure. Wurdemann had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry two years earlier at the tender age of 24 for her collection Bright Ambush. She was also said to be the great-great-granddaughter of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Wurdemann never attended grammar school and entered high school at the age of 11. Though obviously over-qualified for the “secretary” position, she didn’t last long in it—through no fault of her own. Her husband was replaced as consultant in 1941.  That was when Archibald MacLeish took office and wanted, by his own lights, to put a better poet in as Consultant and one who would have a much shorter term. He persuaded Auslander to become “Gift Officer,” and off went Auslander and Audrey across country, even out of the country, finding items for the Library’s collections. One of their superlative acquisitions was Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s manuscript of “The Mask of Anarchy” written in Mary Shelley‘s hand, which can be found today in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Frances Cheney with Brainard Cheney in 1986. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

Frances Cheney with Brainard Cheney in 1986. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives.

Frances Cheney was the next woman in the Poetry Office. The Consultantship was left vacant from 1941-1943, while MacLeish reconnoitered and decided upon the distinguished poet Allen Tate to fill the Chair of Poetry in English. Tate accepted the position from 1943-1944 and hired Frances Cheney to assist him. Frances was the wife of the novelist Brainard Cheney, and both she and her husband were friends of Tate and his writer-wife Caroline Gordon. Frances Cheney, a librarian on leave from Vanderbilt University, helped Tate list 60 American Poets 1896-1944: A Preliminary Check List, published in 1945 by the Library. Frances gathered the bibliographic data, as well as information on the Library’s phonograph recordings. Tate, 25 years later, would tell an audience of librarians, “The only work I performed was to approve Mrs. Cheney’s work—an impressive check-list, for which I received the official credit and Mrs.Cheney did all the work.” Actually, Tate had written brief introductions for each of the poets included. Mrs. Cheney, astute though she was, also left in 1944 to return to Vanderbilt.

That same year, Archibald MacLeish appointed poet Katherine Garrison Chapin Biddle as one of the original Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress. That fellowship is no longer offered, but Biddle, a poet, held hers for 10 years. She is often thought to have been a staff member of the Poetry Office during her time at the Library, but this writer found no evidence that she was a salaried employee. In all likelihood, however, Biddle was in and out of the Poetry Office frequently. According to biographic information with her papers at Georgetown University Library, “[She was] both an accomplished poet in her own right and greatly admired by many of the famous writers and poets of the day as testified in the ample correspondence she received from them.”

When Allen Tate left office, Robert Penn Warren was named consultant (1944-45), and although Kenton Kilmer, Joyce Kilmer‘s son, applied to be his assistant, Warren chose Sheila Corley, who had been one of his graduate students. Warren worked on adding readings by prominent poets to the Library’s collection of literary recordings, and no doubt Sheila Corley helped him.

In 1946, Karl Shapiro became Consultant. Shapiro hired Phyllis Armstrong to serve as the first Special Assistant in Poetry—a position she held for 24 years—the longest tenure of any administrative head of the Poetry Office.

Born in India to a British mother, Armstrong spent most of her youth in England, and came to Washington, DC before World War II. She began work at the Library of Congress in 1938 in the Law Library. During the war, from 1941 to 1945, she took military leave to serve with the British Woman’s Royal Naval Service as a cipher officer in the signals branch. Shapiro described Armstrong in later years as “tall, military in bearing, [and] a chain smoker” whose service to the Library of Congress was exemplary, serving “one difficult poet after another.”

According to other entries in Poetry’s Catbird Seat, she bullied, cajoled and otherwise served the consultants. She reminded Randall Jarrell (1958-1959) of T.S. Eliot, and was inextricably bound-up with the history of the Poetry Office. When questioned about his consultantship, Howard Nemerov (1965-1966) said: “I had no problems. I just did what Phyllis told me to do.” Consultant William Jay Smith (1970-1971), on learning of her retirement in 1970, wrote, “It is virtually impossible to think of the Poetry Room without her.” She worked with fourteen Consultants in all, for which she was awarded the Amos R. Koontz Memorial Foundation Award for Distinguished Service. Armstrong was a long-time resident of Hyattsville, MD and died at age 89 from a respiratory ailment on July 26, 1999. She left no immediate survivors, and her book, A Witness in Washington, published in 1972 by Dragon’s Teeth Press, is out of print, except for an occasional used copy.

Nancy Galbraith, photo reprinted from her Washington Post obituary, provided by the Library of Congress

Nancy Galbraith, photo reprinted from her Washington Post obituary, provided by the Library of Congress

In 1980, Nancy Galbraith stepped into Armstrong’s shoes. She had worked for Armstrong from 1964-1965 forward. Her new duties were described as “principle assistant to the Consultant.” Galbraith was witty, sardonic, and when she could squeeze in the time, an author of short fiction and poems. With help from her assistant Jennifer Rutland, Galbraith administered the annual schedule of evening literary readings and publicized them by mail with a sample poem and information about each poet. Galbraith and Rutland arranged for recordings of evening readings and receptions, during which the consultant could autograph books and talk with attendees.

During Galbraith’s tenure the Poetry Office became the Poetry and Literature Center—renamed in hopes of raising the salaries of staff members.   Born in DC, Galbraith graduated from the Madeira School in 1947. A classmate recalled that she was “perhaps the best dancer in the school, one of the best students in our class and also one of the loveliest-looking.”  While serving the Poetry Office, she received a master’s degree in art therapy from The George Washington University in 1979 and worked as a volunteer art therapist with psychiatric patients at GWU Hospital and with children at Suburban Hospital. She was active at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and was a founding member of a small group of women writers.

Galbraith retired in 1993.   Nancy Galbraith, nee Burdick, had been married to and divorced from Evan Galbraith. She died in 2008 at the age of 79. Her daughter Alexandra predeceased her in 2005.

Also in 1993, a poet and writer/editor at the Library, started a new day-time reading series. Patricia Gray, whose background included an MFA in creative writing/poetry from the University of Virginia, worked with the new maven of the PLC to publicize these events.

The new maven, who succeeded Galbraith, was Jennifer Rutland.  Rutland had previously developed and edited a catalog of all the Library’s literary recordings up to 1981. She was in charge of the PLC from 1993-2005. Both Galbraith and Rutland had the distinction of working with Consultants and later Laureate/Consultants. That title change occurred in 1985 through an act of Congress, and in 1986 Robert Penn Warren became the first Poet Laureate/Consultant in Poetry. He had also been a Consultant (Please see above.).

As Special Assistant in Poetry, Rutland worked with Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz (a second time), Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, and Ted Kooser. She helped the Laureates establish individual projects, for example, Billy Collins‘s “Poetry 180″—a poem a day for American high school students and teachers, as well as projects by other Laureates.

A fashionable woman with blazing Pre-Raphaelite hair, Jenny Rutland saw to all the administrative details of the evening readings, recordings, receptions and started a Web site for the poetry program, which continues today. Rutland’s gift for mots justes was never more evident than in her statement marking Stanley Kunitz‘s death in 2006, “Whenever I was around Stanley, it was as though the air was infused with his huge spirit: he had a great peaceful center, and was able to infect others with his passionate investment in our world, our imaginations and dreams, our lives and history. I remember his appreciation of the ineffable sweetness of life; he taught me to treasure it.”

Jenny Rutland passed away last month, in early September 2014, at age 64 from coronary heart disease.  She continued to live in DC after her retirement.

Patricia Gray, who had been directing the Poetry at Noon (PAN) Reading Series for more than a decade, succeeded her. Gray decided on a two-pronged approach to poetry programming—one that would draw from the local community of accomplished poets as well as the national with live poetry readings. A tall blonde with a quick smile, Gray had created Poetry at Noon (PAN) to attract people who might not ordinarily go to a poetry reading. Realizing that many first-rate poets fall just short of national status, Gray put out a call for manuscripts.  The series mixed stars of the poetry world with gifted poets who deserved more attention. As originally designed, the PAN series lasted 18 years. “Love” was the first themed reading for Valentine’s Day. Examples of other themes included “Spirits and the Supernatural,” “Home and Hearth,” “Fear,” “School Days” and “Urban Life.” The readings offered a brief lunchtime respite from fast-breaking events in Washington, DC, and the Library setting provided a serene place in which art and scholarship could combine to enhance human understanding.

Gray also added a Shakespeare’s Birthday reading featuring professional actors reading from the Bard’s work. The event was held near April 23 each year.  Members of the Academy of Classical Acting at The George Washington University performed scenes from the plays.  In fact, these presentations were finely honed audition pieces, and Academy Director Gary Logan often introduced the scenes and the players.

Aside from the noon and evening readings, Gray staged two grand events.  For the first time ever, and at the suggestion of the Poetry Foundation, the British Laureate was invited to read at the Library with the U.S. Laureate.  The Foundation co-sponsored the occasion spotlighting Andrew Motion of Great Britain and U.S. Laureate Donald Hall in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on May 10, 2007.  “This was an important event for the history of poetry in the US,” Gray said, “because since this country was founded, poets have wanted American poetry to be as good as, or as distinctive as, British poetry.  Walt Whitman went to England to increase sales on Leaves of Grass.  In the 20th century, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost and others sought the British stamp of approval for their work.  The Joint Laureates’ reading sort of brought things full circle.”

The second grand event that Gray directed was the “Celebration of Poets Laureate” in October 2010, for which seven Laureates/Consultants returned: Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, Maxine Kumin, Daniel Hoffman, Rita Dove, and Billy Collins.  The occasion marked the publication of The Poets Laureate Anthology.

During her tenure, Gray worked with Donald Hall, Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, and W.S. Merwin. Following Merwin’s Fall reading in 2010, she stepped down to spend more time with her own projects and family.  Her tenure marked the end of the unbroken line of talented women who managed the Library’s poetry program. At present, a former Poetry Society of America staffer, Robert Casper, is heading the PLC, and as Jennifer Rutland noted: “Now, another new energy has taken the reins.”



William McGuire, Poetry’s Catbird Seat, Library of Congress, 1988.

Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, The Poets Laureate Anthology, W.W. Norton, 2010.

Library of Congress Gazette, 1993-present.

The Hahti Trust

Conversations with John Cole, Abby Yochelson, Jennifer Rutland and others associated with the Library of Congress.


Patricia Gray, author of Rupture: Poems, previously directed the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center. Her poems have appeared most recently in The Louisville Review, The Tower Journal online, Ekphrasis, and District Lines Anthology. She has been a panelist at the Associated Writing Programs national conference and a judge for the national Poetry Out Loud competition for high school students sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Poetry. She is a recipient of an Artist Fellowships in Poetry from DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, honorable mention in the Ann Stanford National Poetry competition, and was a semi-finalist for the New Millennium Poetry Prize. Gray attended Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 2004, where she studied with Evan Boland. Her MFA in creative writing is from the University of Virginia, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. To read more by this author: Patricia Gray: Whitman Issue Patricia Gray: Fall 2005 Patricia Gray: DC Places Issue