The following is a guest post made by Mason Henderson, a 2012-2013 intern at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.
As a student of poetry in the MFA program at the University of Maryland, I have to admit that the Poetry and Literature Center is consistently spoiling me with brilliant poetry. On any given day, my position as an intern at the Center has me working on any number of projects and errands. Sometimes the majority of my time is spent cataloging the hundreds of lectures on poetry and literature that have been digitally recorded at the Library of Congress, while on other occasions I’ve been lucky enough to spend my entire day in the Library’s Reading Room, pouring over the volumes of poetry that I’ve come to know and love. On really special days, I’m fortunate enough to meet, listen, and talk to some of the very writers that have inspired me to pursue an education in the creative arts. I’m never exactly sure what I’ll be doing, but the fact that great poetry will somehow work its way into my day is almost a guarantee. The conversations and lectures that I’ve attended as a part of my intern experience have become the highlight of my time here.
Last Friday was one of those special days. On February 22nd, the Poetry and Literature Center hosted a Literary Birthday Celebration for the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The celebration featured poets Alicia Ostriker and Claudia Emerson discussing Millay’s work and its influence on their own poetry. Both poets related the connection they developed with Millay’s poetry at a very young age. From the sufferings of teenage love to aspirations of political advocacy, both poets found a home in Millay’s subjects and language—a space where their own poetry grew and began to take shape. Both Ostriker and Emerson read some of their favorite Millay pieces and, in the tradition of true poetic conversation, responded with some of their own work.
Sitting and listening to both poets speak so candidly about their experience with Millay’s work, I realized that — once again — inspiring poetry had somehow found its way into my relationship with the Library of Congress. At this point I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised, but somehow, Friday’s celebration did feel different and, well, surprising. As someone who often discovers great poems accidentally, often finding (ashamedly) that I’ve managed to overlook some really great pieces of American verse, I was struck by Ostriker and Emerson’s willingness to admit that, until recently, Millay’s work has fallen out of circulation, even within the academic community. They described this progression of loss as a tragedy and, after listening to their commentary and Millay’s poems, I couldn’t agree more.
The connection to expression that Millay provided for both poets is one that we all envy and hope to experience. While it’s a shame that I previously had little knowledge of Millay’s work, my experience on Friday reminded me that part of my job (probably the most important part) as an intern, student, and reader of poetry is to seek out poetry that has the capacity to educate, inspire, and enrich our everyday experiences. Sometimes it’s enough to read poetry on our own, but more often I think it’s necessary to be a part of the conversations with and connections to the larger world of poets and poems. If there is one thing that I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve worked with the Poetry and Literature Center, it’s the consistent reminder that there’s still poetry out there waiting for me. Time and again, I find myself leaving the office with a fresh outlook and source of renewed artistic inspiration. As I was walked out of the Library on Friday, I realized that the time I spent at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s celebration was certainly no exception.