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Remembering Our Friends

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Gertrude Clarke Whittall, 1867-1965. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress
Gertrude Clarke Whittall, 1867-1965. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Last week, to mark the end of 2014, I wrote about the passing of two Poets Laureate. This week I’d like to look ahead to the year-to-come–specifically, to our growing community of friends. To do this, I have to turn to the past.

The Poetry and Literature Center, and the Poet Laureate position, would not exist without Archer M. Huntington and Gertrude Clarke Whittall. In 1936, Huntington created an endowment for the “maintenance of a Chair of Poetry of the English language in the Library of Congress. ” Fourteen years later, Whittall established a “Poetry Fund,” to be used “to promote the appreciation and understanding of poetry,” primarily through a series of lectures and poetry readings.

It is hard to understate the Huntington and Whittall contributions to American letters. When I started at the Library of Congress, I felt strongly that we needed to connect more strongly to those who help us champion poetry and literature as Huntington and Whittall once did. So, I reached out to a diverse group of people who had expressed an interest in our programs, and with their enthusiastic support we established the Friends of the Poetry and Literature Center and the Poet Laureate Circle.

In the last year, we bolstered our programming and built up our community. Consuelo Duroc-Danner, a longtime Library of Congress James Madison Council member, sponsored the Laureate’s opening reading and closing program–the biggest events of our annual season. Members of the Poet Laureate Circle hosted its first event at a home in Capitol Hill, featuring Philip Levine and Charles Wright. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the two Poets Laureate discuss each other’s work, and it drew a standing room only crowd.

I cannot look at pictures of that evening without some sadness, though. It was the last time I saw Steve Cymrot, one of our Poet Laureate Circle members and a pillar of the Capitol Hill community. I didn’t know Steve long, but I was deeply touched by my time with him. Wherever he was–in the backroom of his bookstore, Riverby Books, rummaging through new acquisitions; in the diner next door, Jimmy T’s Place, where he’d been a regular for too many years to count; or at one of our “Life of a Poet” events at the Hill Center (which he and his wife Nicky helped get off the ground)–his good humor and great sweetness, and his pure love for literature, made everything seem brighter.

Steve Cymrot at the Poet Laureate Circle cultivation event, on Oct. 22nd.
Steve Cymrot at the Poet Laureate Circle Launch event reception, on Oct. 22nd.

This week, as we start the new year fresh and with all sorts of exciting moments to come, I am thinking of Archer Huntington and Gertrude Whittall–their vision, and what that vision created for us all. I am also thinking of Consuelo Duroc-Danner, and how she helped ensure one of our grandest traditions continues. And I am thinking of Steve Cymrot, who passed away this November–I hope I can be as giving as he was to me and so many others. His spirit will not disappear.

Finally, I want to offer my deepest thanks to the writers and friends who enrich the life of the Library and the nation. I look forward to seeing what we can do together in 2015.