Richard Eberhart, the “Jolly Salesman”

Richard Eberhart, one of the most celebrated poets of his generation, had been shortlisted for many years and approached 10 years earlier for the term Conrad Aiken held, before he agreed to serve as Consultant in Poetry in 1959. He followed the iconic Robert Frost in the position and presented such a youthful counterpoint to the New England poetic doyen who had preceded him that several newspaper profiles commented on Eberhart’s “unpoetic persona,” his rugged athleticism and his appearance as a “jolly salesman.”

Eberhart proved amenable to the position’s bureaucratic elements and settled into the position. He worked tirelessly to answer much of the correspondence that arrived into the Poetry Office. He also made the first appeals to secure the papers of Edna St. Vincent Millay for the Library—an effort that would bear fruit a decade later.  He also hosted readings by future Consultants and Laureates Stanley KunitzWilliam MeredithW.S. Merwin, and Stephen Spender.  Among the 90 recordings added to the Library’s archives during his term, future laureates Gwendolyn BrooksDaniel Hoffman, and Maxine Kumin were invited by Eberhard to record their poetry.

Eberhart was invited to attend John F. Kennedy‘s presidential inauguration. Ironically, the ceremony’s great innovation, an inaugural poem, was not presented by Eberhart, but by his predecessor, Robert Frost, who had prophesied Kennedy’s election while serving as consultant. Eberhart’s own prophetic note would be found in his closing report as consultant, where he suggested the Library hold “a week’s poetry festival.” It foreshadowed the crowning achievement of Eberhart’s successor, Louis Untermeyer.