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:
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
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.”