Were this a poem, not an article about the poetry consultants of the Library of Congress, you might have quit reading at the first comma. It's the rare person who, after a day smoothing concrete or enunciating policy, likes to unwind with a beer and a book of verse.
But consider what a disheartening line of work it is to be a poet in America. Almost by definition, being a poet means being neglected or joked about, having to moonlight to make bus fare. It's life in a land where bankers hold sway, mysteries are the province of gene-splicers and glory goes to rock stars. It means producing poetry that W. H. Auden said "makes nothing happen" for a country that loves to get things done.
Oftentimes, prominence only makes a poet feel more insignificant in the culture at large. In 1944, Robert Penn Warren attained one of the loftiest poetic perches in the land -- consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. Years later he quipped in a speech that this zenith of literature was actually "the nadir of relevance."
Since 1937, the Librarian of Congress has appointed 26 poets, five of them women, as consultant in poetry for terms of one or two years. The list of names is a roll-call of poetic celebrities, a constellation of stars as bright as they come in the literary firmament. Among them: Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell, William Stafford, Stephen Spender and James Dickey.
Dickey, probably the most flamboyant, arrived in 1966 with a 12-string guitar, hunting bows and a reputation that spurred the president of the New Hampshire Poetry Society to call his appointment "a sign of the moral decay of American literature."
"I enjoyed my time as the consultant," Dickey recalled. "One minute you're talking to a statesman like the president of Senegal, the next some guy who wants to write pornographic poetry and the next Lyndon Johnson."
The consultant in poetry shuttles around to so many readings, receptions and literary confabs and hears so many reporters ask questions like "Is the world getting better or worse?" that he qualifies for a title more honorable than "consultant." His true title, said one poet who held the job, is ambassador from the Republic of Letters.
The ambassador's embassy is the Poetry Room, an out-of-the-way book-cluttered roost on the third floor of the library's rococo main building. The room is a sunny retreat appointed with cane settees, antique breakfronts and other furnishings from the estate of Getrude Clarke Whittall, a poetry- lover whose endowments support the library's literary program. Two staff members run the office, keep a decanter of sherry or white wine set out as well as choice literary magazines and supervise an occasional candlelight dinner. And what a view there is of the Capitol dome to the west! It's so commanding that during past inaugurals the FBI has closed the Poetry Room for security purposes, marking the rare occasion when the government has regarded a poets' nest as dangerous.
Popular impressions to the contrary, the consultant is not a position supported by taxpayers for the benefit of posy-sniffers and dew- drenched dandies. The chair was endowed by a gift to the library in 1936 by Archer M. Huntington, an Hispanic scholar and scion of a wealthy New York family. As with most consulting jobs, the duties are vague. Daniel Hoffman, who served in 1973-'74 noted: "I spent my first few weeks in the swivel poetry chair, contemplating the six-button telephone, my in-box, my out-box, trying to figure out what I was here to do."
In exchange for a modest salary, a parking place and lots of free time to entertain his muse ("pecking away at quatrains," said consultant Reed Whittemore, now a professor at the University of Maryland), the poet is obliged to give two readings at the library and prepare a program of readings and lectures for the October-to-May "literary season." He also advises the library in the acquistion of new poetry books and shepherds the extensive archive of recorded poetry.
Other than these tasks, the job is what the poet wants it to be -- from a sinecure to a couple of years' hard labor. Robert Penn Warren managed to write and revise two chapters from All the King's Men while he served at the post in 1945, but he also undertook -- happily -- a huge cataloguing project that still looms in his memory: "I made a complete list of every goddamn poetry book published in the United States from 1860 to 1900."
Along with consultant's letters and sundry memorabilia, the library's packrat archives contain "annual reports" the consulants are required to submit every year. Not a few betray the heart of a bureaucrat lurking in a poet. Pity the tedium that Stephen Spender seems to have endured -- in his report he remarked that other than getting a ballpoint pen from Lyndon Johnson, writing a sequence of limericks for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race and reading a poem on the opening of Reston, "nothing very remarkable happened."
Howard Nemerov filed the report that best details the rigors of the consultant's life. As ambassador from the Republic of Letters, Nemerov enjoyed the same prerogatives as other Washington diplomats, so no one should be disturbed that his account plays fast and loose with the truth:
The consultant in poetry sits in the right eye of the Library of Congress, in a luxuriously appointed office. His feet sink deep into the white llama-skin rug (gift of the Tashi Lama). His desk is a priceless heirloom, presented to Samuel Taylor Coleridge by a nephew of Kubla Khan. All the books in the room are bound in pure gold; at sunset the place blazes intolerably. The consultant is protected against quotidian intrusion by a staff of learned and beautiful women, graciously supplied by the taxpayers of America. For moments of more profound meditation he mounts the spiral stair to the genuine ivory tower constructed by the design left by Saarinen.
"Would that there were an ivory tower," Robert Hayden complained in one of his reports, noting that he had been assailed by "motley crews of poetasters." The hidden aspect of the job is the public demand. Once you have explained what it is a poetry consultant does -- Nemerov observed that "the consultant in poetry is a very busy man chiefly because he spends so much time talking with people who want to know what the consultant in poetry does" -- there are fans to contend with: writing teachers, cultural attach,es, copywriters wanting to discuss their advertising jingles and a sprinkling of lunatics. The mail brings unsolicited manuscripts, the phone all varieties of interruption.
William Stafford once got a call from a congressman asking him to compile a bibliography on Shelley for his student daughter, who didn't have time to do it herself. Stafford says he did a superficial job, on the theory that "anyone who asked somebody else to compile a bibliography wouldn't know if it were any good anyway." The Treasury Department asked Richard Eberhart whether he might concoct some poetic appetizer to be read at a dinner in El Salvador dedicated to "inter-allied Latin American banking amity."
During World War II, a general phoned Robert Penn Warren to check the meter of a poem another general had written to "inspirit" the troops. Warren tapped out the rhythm line by line. The general thanked him profusely and Warren, whose defective vision kept him out of the Navy, felt as though he'd contributed to the war effort. The text of the verse has escaped Warren's memory except for the refrain, which goes: We are the boys who don't like to brag/ But we sure are proud of our grand old flag.
To the sorrow of almost no serious poet, the United States does not retain a poet laureate to commemorate Great National Events as Great Britain does and China and Japan once did. A lot of poets opposed to a laureate are certain that deserving themes such as the prowess of Gerald Ford on the staircase of Air Force One would be off limits.
But for the last 10 years Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D- Hawaii) has introduced a bill proposing such a post. The senator would have the laureate recompensed "at a rate set by the president, but not to exceed 60 per centum of the salary of a federal district court judge," and he remarks: "We would be giving the relatively young poets of today something to which they could aspire. We would be telling them that we value their contributions as much as those of the other builders of our nation, such as engineers, scientists, tradesmen and others."
Matsunaga's colleagues have been blunt in expressing their opinion of the poets' part in nation-building by burying the senator's hardy perennial in committee.
That leaves the chair in poetry at the Library of Congress as an unofficial position of poet laureate. Archibald MacLeish, a poet, statesman and former Librarian of Congress, once predicted in a letter that the consultancy would become "one of the greatest distinctions in American letters." Certainly it's unique in American poetry, an office that Robert Hayden has written "has a cachet, an inscape not easily described, a mystique, indeed, not easily explained."
Perhaps the mystique arises from the situation of being a "representative" poet in a city that does not know what to do with poets. Washington, after all, is where Reed Whittemore, as consultant in poetry during President Lyndon Johnson's inaugural, was herded into a bus marked "cultural leaders" along with a stray editor from The New Yorker and several Japanese architects. When he held the chair, Robert Frost wished to be consulted by all branches of government on literary matters, and even suggested a cabinet position be created for a poet. Frost recited a poem at John F. Kennedy's inaugural, but Roy P. Basler, former Library of Congress administrator, notes in a book of memoirs that Kennedy was a bit crabbed by "Frost's persistent availability."
A poet, says James Dickey, is that rare creature, "the person who says what he thinks." The question, then, is what place is there in Washington for somebody as forthright as a poet, especially given that day after day the language is debased by bureaucrats and journalists, and only fools fail to consider what is or isn't "on the record"?
"It's a chastening experience," said Maxine Kumin, who served as poetry consultant from 1980 to 1982. "The job is surrounded by protocol; there are public appearances. You really have to shape up." Kumin, who made a point of bringing women poets to read at the library and on every Thursday liberated the Poetry Room with the Women's Bag Lunch Poetry Work Shop, felt obliged to don skirt and heels -- until one day she said: "The hell with it. I'm a poet."
William Stafford was sufficiently dubious about the prospects of a year in Washington as the consultant that he put the decision whether to move from Oregon to a family election. The result was three votes in favor of going and one against -- Stafford. When he arrived, though, the poet was surprised: "I sensed I was not being asked to give up my free and easy ways, but was invited to be free and easy. In a paradoxical way, I represented an essential counter. It was like being invited to be a rebel."
Even the world of poetry is not immune to protocol and politics. There's an establishment cast to those who have served as consultant. A provocative talent like Allen Ginsburg has yet to be given the run of the genteel poetry room. The only real black mark on the poetry chair occurred during the witch- hunts of the McCarthy era when William Carlos Williams' appointment in 1952 was held up by a loyalty investigaton into teriohe poet's "communist sympathies." Williams, who thought McCarthy "a prize ape," never did serve, thanks to ill health and the political imbroglio surrounding his appointment. According to his biographer, Paul Mariani, the library's handling of the affair plunged Williams into a deep depression.
The latest luminary in the line of the consultancy is Anthony Hecht, a scholarly neo-classical poet who, while not a household name, has carved a reputation in the literary world, winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1968 and other laurels.
He was in his new office in the library a few weeks ago, sipping coffee and moving easily from a recommendation for a young writer to a quick outline of the historical forces that have displaced the modern poet. On the wall were pictures of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell. The window held a view of the roof of the Supreme Court. In the air was the rich aroma of books that pervades the nation's largest library.
An hour in such a sancutary and one might say there is a purpose in writing all that stuff that makes nothing happen. The new consultant in poetry tipped back in his chair and said in a sagacious voice: "The purpose of poetry is not to make things happen, but to inhibit action and so to encourage thought. A really good poem is something you think about forever."