The Carters gave a party for some poets yesterday, with readings and refreshments and a string quartet to play. The two-hour celebration was enough to break the lease. And everyone was there except for what's-his-name from Greece.
There were poets in the foyer, there were poets on the lawn, and if they had their way, the party might have gone till dawn. But this was not permitted by our stalwart Secret Service, who did what they are paid to do -- look sharp while feeling nervous.
The president was working on the crisis in Iran, and also on the situation in Afghanistan. And everybody understood, with things in such a tizzy, that Jimmy would have liked to come, but probably was busy.
( a group of poets were invited once to a soiree, back in the age of Camelot, the time of J. F. K. But then a missle crisis came along at the last minute, and so the party had to stop before they could begin it.)
No crisis stopped them yesterday; the poets were abundant, and patrons of the art were there (perhaps a bit redundant). A lot of fun was had before they brought it to a close . . . It's getting complicated now; we'd better switch to prose.
The opening of the White House's salute to poetry and specifically to American poets was marred by logistic problems, but once the ceremonial part was ended and the informal partying began in earnest, it quickly became one of the most enjoyable White House parties in recent memory. The crowd was made up largely of people who knew and liked one another, and the congeniality was as thick as the mozzarella on the miniature pizzas.
But at the beginning, White House security had a problem handling the poets -- partly, as a White House spokesman said, because "a lot of poets don't R.S.V.P. Of the 75 poets we had expected, we got between 110 and 120 -- we're not quite sure how many." Whatever the reason, some of the poets had to wait in line an hour or more for security clearance, and a few of them were angry by the time they got in.
John Ciardi, one of the poets who gave a brief reading, made a pointed reference to "the grinning presidency" in one of his poems and complained, a few lines later, that "new postal regulations forbid the mailing of anything real and accurate." Later, privately, he said that he found the wait "insulting," and when told that Rod McKuen was one of the invited poets at the party, he said, "That adds to the insult."
"The last time I came here," he said, "Johnson was president and you could drive up to the door and they had something worth drinking. There's nothing potable in this administration." He added that Carter "had my vote until today -- now I'm not so sure," then paused and said that he would "have to consider the alternatives."
Not present at the party was poet and ex-senator Eugene McCarthy, but a report was supplied by Washington poety Toby Thompson, who had seen him outside the White House: "We had to wait outside about 45 minutes and it was freezing. Gene McCarthy came up behind me and said the only way he could get into the White House now was by being a poet and waiting in line. He walked away after a few mintues. Then there was a horrible, loud, shrieking noise -- it was the starling-scattering system. I wonder how many poems will be written in the next year about standing outside the White House in the cold and listening to the sound of amplified starlings."
Other poets were less bothered by the inconvenience or managed to take it in stride. Ann Darr said that she thought the sound of starlings was "part of the entertainment."
"I can't be cynical about being invited to the White House," said Robert Hayden, "and I didn't mind the wait. There have been times when poets weren't welcome here."
In general, the poets seemed to consider it a festive occasion of special significance. "Some of these poets I've never seen in neckties before," said William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly, "and some of them should have been in rags."
Elisavietta Ritchie said the party was inspiring her to start an informal "poetry mafia" in Washington. "We could get together about once a week, to read and talk and enjoy one another's company," she said, and immediately she began making plans with Dierdra Baldwin, who said she thought events like this might "improve the mental health of the country."
One problem at an event like this is that, if you ask one poet to read, you must ask many. The White House decided to have readings by 21 poets, and since only about half an hour could be devoted to readings, they were divided into groups of three and dispersed among seven rooms. Each was asked to read for about five minutes -- a good way of holding them down to about 10 minutes apiece.
Sterling Brown went over his time limit and explained later, "I don't read without reading 'The Strong Men.' That's like saying a prayer and not saying, 'Amen.'" Brown seemed particularly happy about the forthcoming publication, May, that will include his second book, "No Hiding Place," which was rejected by Harcourt Bracein the 1930s. "It will be part of my 'Collected Poems,'" he said. Earlier, during his reading in the China Room, he was wondering whether he belonged at the party. "To quote from my favorite author," he said, "I feel like a bartender among angels." He came wearing his Phi Beta Kappa key as a sort of amulet, he said, because, "I was afraid of all the deep, symbolic, difficult poets here."
"I'd rather be at the Pigfoot," he told some friends, but he was obviously joking and enjoying himself thoroughly.
James Dickey, an old-friend of the Carters, recalled the White House party that was boycotted by Robert Lowell during the Vietnam war and said "the whole political situation is different now. I think this is a great occasion for the arts and for poetry in particular."
Asked what he thought about the mixture of poetry and politics, Richard Eberhart said, "It's very hard to write a political poem, because politics change so fast and poetry tries to deal with deeper realities."
Since the place was full of poets, the political overtones were partly anti-establishment -- for example, poet Ed Cox's remark that "there's something decadent bout a poetry event that has so much mink." But President Carter got a head start on a year that will probably be full of handshaking by joining his wife and Joan Mondale for a while in the receiving line. He was unable to attend the readings or the reception afterward.
"Mr. President," one woman in the receiving line told Carter, "I want you to know that you have some support in Chicago."
Despite their disgruntlement at the cold wait outside, the poets applauded the president when he went back to work. "I applauded him because he's a nice fellow," and poet Michael Braude. "Politically, he's a nice fellow, too."
The mink that bothered Cox at the White House was even more concentrated at a small party afterward at the F Stgreet Club that was attended chiefly by wealthy patrons and by people associated with Poetry magazine in Chicago. Among the guests was Lady Rothermere (of the Texas Murchisons), passing through town from Vail but a resident of Monte Carlo "because it's the same time zone as London," where the family newspaper is published. Of life in Monte Carlo, she told one guest: "If you wake up Monday morning and haven't any thing to do all week, there's no need to worry because something will turn up. It's that kind of place."
Des Plaines (Ill.) Bank President Anthony Angelo, who picked up the tab at the F Street Club, said that some of the guest there were "frustrated poets -- everybody wants to be somebody they're not." A board member of Poetry magazine, Angelo said he hopes to attract a little green stuff to poetry for a change: "Everybody gives money to ballet and theatre, but nobody ever gives any to poetry."
Barbara Angelo, who said she was not a poet, "just a little ole housewife," chose for the role an assortment of emeralds and diamonds to set off her figure-bugging, black-velvet, strapless gown, which one guest, Mary McFadden, measured with a dress designer's cool eye. Few could miss Angelo's 14.5-carat square-cut diamond, which she said her husband had given her years ago as a "second" ring.
"When I first saw it," she said, "I told him it looked like a small skating rink. He said, 'You'll get used to it.' I did."
Published poets at the White House reception had been asked to wear white carnations, which were supplied at the door. Amy Carter took one; although not a published poet, she gave a public reading at the White House on "Reading Is Fundamental" day and helped in the publication of a collection of poems by her classmates. Few carnations were in evidence at the F Street Club, though at least one working poet was present: Gwendolyn Brooks, poety-laureate of Illinois.
Comptroller of the Currency John Heimann hesitated and finally decided not to pin on a carnation. "I had a whole bunch of stuff published in esoteric journals when I was younger," he said. "but I didn't think they meant it that way."
Other guests included Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Arts Endownment chairman Livingston Biddle, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, the Kennedy Center's Roger Stevens, and presidential aide Hedley Donovan.
Among those not present was the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, who recently won the Nobel Prize. His absence seemed to upset Angelo, but nobody else, and a White House spokesman could see no political significance in his absence from a reception primarily for American poets. "He received the same invitation as everyone else," she said, "and we got a very nice letter from him saying that he could not come." He also sent some framed copies of his poems to Congress, and they were displayed at the party.