Reed Whittemore, former poet laureate, dies at 92

April 9, 2012

Reed Whittemore, who as a Yale sophomore in 1939 helped start a literary magazine that published some of the eminent poets of the age and who himself became a leading ambassador for poetry as writer, editor, college professor and twice poet laureate of the United States, died April 6 in Kensington. He was 92.

The death, at the Arden Courts assisted living facility, was confirmed by his daughter Cate Whittemore. She said her father had dementia and also was diagnosed more than 45 years ago with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that made it hard to raise his arms, make a fist and even walk.

Mr. Whittemore took the steroid prednisone as a treatment for the disease, but found the side effects made him feel moody. Invoking his New England WASP pedigree, he once quipped, “One can easily see a connection between the last Puritans and myasthenia.”

This whimsical view of his illness was in keeping with the ironic playfulness of his poems. Mr. Whittemore delicately balanced the lyrical and conversational in much-anthologized poems exploring marriage and fatherhood, capitalism and bureaucracy and the meaning of a poet in society. He also was a well-regarded essayist of broad tastes — from Robert Browning to the Beats.

Don Share, the senior editor of Poetry magazine, said Mr. Whittemore had a “wide-ranging literary presence” for more than a half-century. Share called Mr. Whittemore a strong advocate for “poetry as part of public conversation, poems that engaged the way people talked and thought about politics.”

His poem “On the Unimportance of Words,” published in Poetry in 1954, satirizes through its blindly boosterish tone American consumerism and social behavior:

Gentlemen,

Accept my word that this country is wiser and better

Than its words. It would be unpatriotic to think otherwise.

Of course we are not perfect.

...

Things are admittedly tough, and I would not have you

Student-voter-consumer Americans think

Otherwise.

But when you have added it up — the lies and the come-ons,

And the jargon and the platitudes and hosannas — when

you have granted

That verbally we are blockheads and cheats and worse

I ask you,

What does this matter so long as we keep the faith,

And our hearts are true and our minds clean, and we grow

More and bigger forever (and onward and upward)?

Few had a more precocious start than Mr. Whittemore. At 20, he co-founded the literary quarterly Furioso and used his persistence to lure contributions from established Modernist poets including Archibald Macleish, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. Many were drawn to the enterprise by the fact that they had gotten their start in such “little magazines.”

“The name Furioso is a knockout,” Williams wrote back. “Nothing could be more to the point. If youth ain’t furioso at the . . . spectacle the world presents today with all its backhouses propped up on the official stilts — then it ain’t worth a damn. Start furioso. You’ll be geniuses if you can bring it out.”

Mr. Whittemore’s magazine collaborator was James Angleton, his Yale roommate and future CIA counterintelligence chief. Furioso was run on a shoestring — and other accessories.

“When we were short of money, which was most of the time,” Mr. Whittemore later told Time magazine, “we paid off our poets with fine Italian cravats from the stock that the Angleton haberdasher in Italy kept replenishing.”

Starting in 1946, Mr. Whittemore published 11 books of poetry and nine other volumes of criticism and biography. He also served as literary editor for the New Republic magazine from 1969 to 1973, and was “consultant in poetry” to the Library of Congress — now called U.S. poet laureate — from 1964 to 1965 and again from 1984 to 1985.

Mr. Whittemore spent much of his early career as an English professor and department chairman at Carleton College in Minnesota, where he revived the defunct Furioso as the Carleton Miscellany. He was an English professor at the University of Maryland from 1967 to 1984.

He cast his gimlet eye on academic bureaucracy in his 1974 poem “The Sad Committee Shaggy.”

In good ole day ze king need no committee.

Was nize.

Him says, them does; him sells, them buys.

Good system.

But then come big push make king one of the guys.

So king buy chairs, say me no king, me chairman.

So knocked off paradize.

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once wrote that Mr. Whittemore “made a body of work that often gives pleasure by dosing cant with the solvent of laughter.”

Edward Reed Whittemore II was born Sept. 11, 1919, in New Haven, Conn., where his father was a general practice physician.

He described a materially comfortable but solitary upbringing that included a period under his paternal grandmother’s roof when the family lost nearly all its money during the Depression.

Mr. Whittemore graduated in 1937 from the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and then entered Yale, by which time he had become drawn to socialist politics by the Depression and the Spanish Civil War. His interest in poetry was encouraged by a professor, Arthur Mizener, a prominent author and critic who became his mentor.

After graduating from Yale in 1941, Mr. Whittemore served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in the Mediterranean as a supply and transportation officer during World War II. Mizener then smoothed the way for the publication of Mr. Whittemore’s first volume, “Heroes & Heroines” (1946).

His subsequent books included “An American Takes a Walk” (1956), “The Fascination of the Abomination: Poems, Stories and Essays” (1963) and “The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House” (1974), a poetry volume nominated for the National Book Award.

Mr. Whittemore also wrote the biography “William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey” (1975) and “Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate” (1993). Mr. Whittemore’s memoir, “Against the Grain” (2007), took the narrative gamble of referring to himself throughout in the third-person, just like his early model Henry Adams.

In 1952, he married Helen Lundeen. Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include three children, Cate Whittemore of Putnam Valley, N.Y., Edward “Ned” Whittemore III of Costa Mesa, Calif., and Daisy Whittemore of Kensington; and six grandchildren.

Another son, Jack Whittemore, died in 1997 at 37. He was born with a rare blood disease and inspired one of Mr. Whittemore’s most poignant verses, “Clamming” (1974), about his attempts to pass on his accumulated wisdom.

“When I look at history, literary and social, I find that I side pretty steadily with history’s eccentrics,” Mr. Whittemore wrote in the essay “But Seriously,” published in the early 1960s. “I don’t mean all the mad astrologists and mystics — the best satirists have not, I think, gravitated toward exotic ideals and idealisms — but simply the mundane eccentrics who have stood on the sidelines with the game in progress, and made frosty remarks instead of cheering.”

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