The Library and its Laureates: The Examples
of Auslander, Williams, Dickey & Kumin
The position of Poet Laureate Consultant has evolved
over time from the one first held by the now largely forgotten and unread
Joseph Auslander to the post held by current Poet Laureate
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,
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
AUSLANDER AND MACLEISH
photo credit: Library of Congress
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
MacLeish as Librarian of Congress in 1939.
Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish
photo credit: Library of Congress
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
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
The largest misconception about the position of Poet
Laureate has to do with the appointment process. A non-scientific poll
will yield the average response that the President of the United States
appoints the Poet Laureate. This misunderstanding is odd, given that
the Poet Laureate serves at the Library of Congress. The president
does appoint Librarians of Congress on the death, retirement or departure
of a Librarian, but there is no evidence that a sitting US President
has ever taken the time to delve into the selection of a Poet Laureate.
Aside from Kennedy's well-known regard for Robert Frost,
the poet departed the consultancy a year before Kennedy's election and
two years before his now-famous participation as the nation's first
However disconnected from the executive branch, the
position has experienced the shocks of turbulent periods in our political
history. It is, after all, an institution of the Congress and is not
immune to the moods of the period. Which brings us to the other great
misconception in the history of the position—the tale of William
Carlos Williams. The general understanding among most poets is that
William Carlos Williams is a curious footnote—a poet, like Robert
Fitzgerald, who was appointed but could not serve due to illness.
William Carlos Williams visiting the Library of Congress in 1951.
photo credit: Library of Congress
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.
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."
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,
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.
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
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
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."
Poetry Consultants Josephine Jacobsen, Anthony Hecht, and Maxine Kumin in 1982.
photo credit: Library of Congress
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.
Dan Vera is a poet and writer living
in Washington, DC. He's the editor of the Gay culture journal White
Crane, co-founder of VRZHU Poetry Press, founder of Brookland Area
Writers & Artists, and a member of DC Poets Against War, and the
Triangle Artists Group. His poetry has appeared in Delaware Poetry
Review, DC Poets Against The War, Konch, Shaping Sanctuary, and
Pacifica Radio's nationally broadcast Peace Watch program. His first
book of poems, The Space Between Our Danger and Delight was
released in 2008 by Beothuk Books.
Published in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009.
Read more by this author:
Evolving City Issue
Split This Rock Issue
Kim Roberts and Vera on DC
Author's Houses: Forebears Issue
Vera: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Vera: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
Vera: Floricanto Issue
Dan Vera on Sterling A. Brown: Poetic Ancestors Issue