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Reed Whittemore: An Appreciation

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The following is a guest post by Bryan Koen, graduate research assistant for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.

Reed Whittemore, twice Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, died on Friday in Kensington, MD. He was 92. You can read his obituary here and here, but we would like to add a few words about the poet.

Whittemore said of the consultancy, “The job is such a rare and special one in the library world and the federal bureaucracy, as well as within the world of poetry, that it is a job of opportunity, a catbird seat.” That final phrase stuck—William McGuire appropriated it for his 1988 book Poetry’s Catbird Seat, and we borrowed it again for the name of this blog. But Whittemore’s remark is memorable not just for one pithy description. The statement illustrates a keen understanding of the multiple public commitments a poet laureate must make—to the Library that houses the office, to the nation, and to the art—as well as a willingness to pour his or her energies into all of them.

Whittemore began his public commitment to poetry at a young age, showing a special dedication to literary publishing. As an undergraduate, he co-founded the literary magazine Furioso and published such Modernist luminaries as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens. He also started a literary magazine at Carlton College while he taught there and served as literary editor of The New Republic. As Consultant Whittemore started the Association of Literary Magazines of America, which was replaced by the current-day Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, to provide funding to hundreds of other “little” magazines and help buoy the careers of countless poets.

We remember Whittemore as a great supporter of the art, and more simply as a great poet. Michael Collier, professor of English at the University of Maryland (where Whittemore finished his career as a teacher), writes:

As a member of that remarkable generation of post WWII poets, Reed Whittemore stands out for his sly, satirical provocations. His poems beguile readers with a disarming directness and plain-spokenness that call to mind E. B. White and Mark Twain, and like these great American humorists Reed sniffed out political, social, and intellectual bombast and arrogance wherever he found it, which was just about everywhere. He was playful with his erudition, which was considerable, and deeply modest, almost shy. As I think about the vast landscape of contemporary American poetry, there is really no one like him, and yet he’s exactly the kind of poet we need—clear-eyed, accessible, complicatedly optimistic, and fierce.

With that same optimism and clarity and vision, Reed Whittemore looked out from the catbird seat and saw opportunity. The view here is just a little dimmer now that he’s gone.

Comments (2)

  1. To my shame, I had never heard of Whittemore until a friend posted the news of his death. All it took was one poem found online (“The Tarantula”), and I was ordering one of his books …

    Thank you for writing this post, Bryan Koen. It adds much to my appreciation for this poet.

  2. Beautiful tribute to a very rare, special, keenly sighted human being who was a gift to us all.

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