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A Feast of Luminaries: Poet Laureates at the Library of Congress

CIMG1177light.jpgHow many poet laureates does it take... The Dresser is sure you can complete the joke without her help. Former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins (2001-2003) quipped that he and the other Laureates--Rita Dove (1993-1995), Daniel Hoffman (1973-1974), Maxine Kumin (1981-1982), Kay Ryan (2008-2010), Charles Simic (2007-2008) and Mark Strand (1990-1991), who were waiting back stage of the packed Coolidge Auditorium, could certainly handle the job of changing that problematic light bulb. The Dresser thought to herself, the stage looked awfully bare with only one poet luminary on stage at a time, though certainly each was a beacon in his or her own way.


The purpose of the evening was to launch The Poets Laureate Anthology, a new collection featuring all 43 poets who rose to national attention from 1937 to the current day as either Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress or Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Archibald MacLeish, a poet himself, created the Consultant in Poetry position when he was Librarian of Congress. Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, a former poetry editor at the New York Times Book Review and a professor American literature at Sarah Lawrence College, is the editor of this collection, which is a co-publication of the Library of Congress and W. W. Norton. Billy Collins wrote the foreword.CIMG1170Collins.jpg

What was telling about the evening which was sponsored by the LOC, Norton and Poetry Society of American, was that James Billington, the current Librarian of Congress, and Carolyn T. Brown, Director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, wanted the audience to have fun and invest in their 762-page book featuring some of America's finest poets. Lucky for the Library, the first Laureate of the alphabet for this program was Billy Collins, a popular poet with a flair for showmanship. He immediately said that one of his role models for humor was Howard Nemerov, a poet who served as Consultant in Poetry twice (1963-1964 and 1988-1990). Collins read Nemerov's poem, "Money: An Introductory Lecture." Here is how this poem opens.


This morning we shall spend a few minutes
Upon the study of symbolism, which is basic
To the nature of money. I show you this nickel.
Icons and cryptograms are written all over
The nickel: one side shows a hunchbacked bison
Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate
The circular nature of money. Over him arches
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and, squinched in
Between that and his rump, E PLURIBUS UNUM,
A Roman reminiscence that appears to mean
An indeterminately large number of things
All of which are the same. ...

The poem goes on to say that the nickel will buy you nothing and how the symbolism of the nickel includes endangered species both animal and human. Nemerov poked fun at what the American government could have possibly been thinking in creating these symbols for this nearly valueless coin. Certainly the Dresser wondered whether Collins was offering a subliminal message relative to the commerce that would take place after the last laureate read and everyone was invited to the Great Hall of the glorious Jefferson Building where books would be sold and signed at individual tables on the balcony.

However, the next poem by Collins threw a whimsical smoke screen over those thoughts.

PORTRAIT OF THE READER WITH CEREAL "A poet . . . never speaks directly, as to someone at the breakfast table." Yeats

This morning I sit across from you

at the same small table,

the sun italicizing

the breakfast things,

the side of a blue-and-white pitcher,

a dish of berries.

As usual I haven't a word to say,

so we sit here in a pool of silence,

beneath the roof and the bright sky,

me wearing a sweatshirt or robe,

you invisible. ...

The Dresser has heard Collins read many times and his habit is to deconstruct what has been set in stone as he does by starting with the epigraph by Yeats. The audience provided a thunder of clapping after each of his offerings that continued throughout the evening for each of the other laureates. There is no better warm up act for poetry than Billy Collins.


CIMG1168Dove.jpgThe light bulb was then passed to Rita Dove who warmed up by reading a Medusa poem by Louise Bogan (1945-1946) and Robert Hayden's (1976-1978) "Omage to the Empress of the Blues." She followed with two of her own poems: "This Life," which celebrates, through the voice of her grandmother, books and libraries and "The Bridgetower," a tribute to the biracial pianist George Polgreen Bridgetower who was a valued friend of Ludwig van Beethoven.

From the "great doorstopper of a book," Daniel Hoffman read "A World Below the Window" by William J. Smith (1968-1970) followed by six short of his own poems. Here is the first couplet of "The Seals in Penobscot Bay"


hadn't heard of the atom bomb,
so I shouted a warning to them


The Dresser is not entirely sure but she thinks Daniel Hoffman, out of the seven poets, was the only one she had never heard give a reading. She did not know about his studies of violence--he also read his poems "Power" and "Violence."


Maxine Kumin countered the darkness of Hoffman by opening with "Gentle Reader" by Josephine Jacobsen. It's a poem that cranked up the audience's clapping volume. Here are excerpts.


Late in the night when I should be asleep

under the city stars in a small room

I read a poet. A poet: not a versifier.

A poet, dangerous and steep.

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;

until my juices feed a savage sight

that runs along the lines, bright

as beasts' eyes. The rubble splays to dust: 

city, book, bed, leaving my ear's lust

saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.

Hearing "Gentle Reader" put the Dresser back in touch with the visit she paid to Ms. Jacobsen in her last years when this magnificent poet said she could no longer write and how hard it was for the Dresser to accept this condition. In hearing this poem, the Dresser was reminded of how high the standards were for Josephine Jacobsen.

CIMG1166Kumin.jpgWisely, Kumin followed the Jacobsen poem with her own "Seven Caveats in May" which puts a light touch on a potentially life-threatening situation. Here's an excerpt:


When the dog whines at 5 a.m., do not
make your first mistake and let him out,
When he starts to bark in a furious tom-tom rhythm
and you can just discern a shadowy feinting

taking place under the distant hemlocks
do not seize the small sledge from the worktable and fly
out there in your nightgown and unlaced high
tops preparing to whack this, the ninth of its kind

in the last four weeks, over the head
before it can quill your canine.
But it's not a porcupine: it's a big, black, angry
bear. Now your dog has put him up a tree

Other poems Kumin presented were "Fat Pets On" and "The Revisionist's Dream," a villanelle dedicated to Anne Sexton, a close friend of Kumin's, was always on the verge of her eventually successful suicide. This poem speaks to that darkness in Sexton.

Kay Ryan who vacated the Laureate position in May--W. S. Merwin succeeds her--said it felt unfair for her to be back at the LOC so soon and quickly changed the mood in the venerable auditorium by reading "Danse Russe" by William Carlos Williams (1952). In this poem, the poet-doctor, the only person awake in his family home, celebrates his loneliness with a naked dance. Kay Ryan, who is oddly both a recluse and an outstanding public speaker, said she loves this poem and relates to Williams happy loneliness.CIMG1173KayRyan.jpg

The Dresser, who has written exuberantly about Kay Ryan before, would be hard pressed to say which poem presented she liked the best. Here are some of the titles "Flamingo Watching," "This Life," "Home to Roost," "A Hundred Bolts of Satin," "Doubt," and "Odd Blocks." Here's the opening of "Doubt"


A chick has just so much time
to chip its way out, just so much
egg energy to apply to the weakest spot
or whatever spot it started at.
It can't afford doubt. Who Can?



Charles Simic read four poems starting with his "In the Library," followed by Louise Bogan's "Cartography," and finishing with "My Beloved," and "Prodigy." Here's an excerpt from Simic's wicked love poem.

after D. Khrams

In the fine print of her face
Her eyes are two loopholes
No, let me start again.
Her eyes are flies in milk,
Her eyes are baby Draculas.

To hell with her eyes.
Let me tell you about her mouth.
Her mouth's the red cottage
Where the wolf ate grandma.

Standing a head taller or more than all the other laureates, Mark Strand's opening comment was "I was Poet Laureate when I was seven years old." The Dresser cannot imagine this man with the looks of a god as a child. He presented four poems: Anthony Hecht's (1982-84) "A Hill," Robert Lowell's (1947-48) "Fall 1961" and his own two poems "Pot Roast" and "Eating Poetry." Here's the opening lines of "Eating Poetry."


Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.


The Dresser now stands with hand on her hip and asks what poem could have more appropriately ended such a literary feast? So while the program began with the image of light, it was always about the nourishment of poetry. And say, aren't we all made from the light of stars?


Comments (3)

beautiful and fulfilling for those of us who could not make it in person

Barbara Goldberg:

I was unable to make this and at least you brought some of
the event to me! Sounds like a poetic time was had by all!

Patricia Gray:

What a great reporter and photographer you are, Karren. It was such fun to revisit the program with you and sample some of the evening's poems again, Also loved the invidual shots of the poets and the gorgeous, old Jefferson Building.

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