The following essay was written in 2012 by Maxine Kumin, Consultant in Poetry from 1981-82, as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online “Poetry of American History” series that ran from 2012-2014. The series included essays and interviews by leaders in the literary field, including former Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry, that illustrated how poems by Americans helped define or expand the country. The aim was to complement conventional historical texts and showcase poetry’s place as an essential tool for recording our nation’s past. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting essays from “Poetry of American History” to bring them new light.
One Poet’s View of Social Change at the Library of Congress
I spent the first seventy-five years of my life in the last century, much of it a pre-feminist era where women rarely held public office. When they were featured in the press it was common to describe their hats, announce their shoe size and allude to the generosity and worth of their husbands. Gradually, as the women’s movement gained purchase, attitudes shifted. The Pat Nixon stereotype ebbed; the Madeleine Albright model emerged.
When I was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1981 (four years later, thanks to Senator Spark Matsunaga, the name was changed to U.S. Poet Laureate), a luncheon was held to announce my appointment and members of the press were invited. I remember a long table with microphones set at intervals. When one reporter asked me how I felt about being chosen, I replied that I felt very honored, particularly as I was only the fifth woman to be named since Joseph Auslander first assumed the role in 1937. The Librarian reached across the table for the microphone. He said, “We don’t count.” I reached to take it back and said, “Well, we do.”
Years later, my predecessor, Bill Meredith, told me he had lobbied for Allen Ginsberg. Apparently I, a middle-class, middle-aged heterosexual white woman, had been seen as a safer choice. On the whole, Allen might have been less trouble. Invited to attend a meeting of illustrious individuals to discuss the creative power of men and the nurturing instinct of women and realizing that I was the only female in the room, I said I felt as if I had stumbled into a stag club and should leap out of a cake. The same subject recurred when I was appointed to the Librarian’s Council of Scholars. I have never forgiven myself for acceding to the Librarian’s insistence that I apologize for calling the council a boys’ club. I didn’t have the courage to get up and walk out.
Under the approving eye of the assistant librarian I was free to invite women poets to read at the monthly events. Among others, Diane Ackerman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Marge Piercy, Linda Pastan, Ruth Stone, Audre Lorde, Josephine Miles, Shirley Kaufman, Eleanor Ross Taylor, and Adrienne Rich took the platform over the course of my tenure. Rich, who had declined earlier invitations by male consultants, was the star of the series; the line for admittance to the auditorium stretched around the block. Czeslaw Milosz, invited by the Librarian, gave a remarkable talk titled “The Witness of Poetry”; I was to introduce him. Not invited to the dinner in his honor preceding the event, I was told to meet him backstage in the Green Room ten minutes before he was to speak.
Years later, in a poem remembering that evening, I wrote: Is there a first prize for awkwardness? Something immense and inedible? If so, we share it. Happily, we hit on our mutual passion for foraging for wild mushrooms; we shared their Latin nomenclature until it was time to walk onto the stage.
The Gertrude Whittall Room adjacent to the Poetry Office was handsomely furnished and rarely used except to host foreign visitors. I instituted Thursday brown bag lunches to which established women writers in any genre were invited to bring a student or disciple, overflow the French Regency-style furniture, sprawl on the Aubusson rug and share their thoughts and sandwiches. Sometimes Calvin, who poured the wine at the Librarian’s Wednesday night dinners, would appear with a leftover open bottle or two. He also often ran the elevator that conveyed me up to the third floor, the site of the Poetry Office, and we became friends, chatting during my daily ascent. He was fastidious about spiriting the bottles away once our paper cups were filled and we were fastidious about leaving the room as tidy as we had found it. The Thursday lunches were a great success. The original allotted hour often extended to 4 p.m.
The number of female laureates rose none too rapidly. Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed in 1985, Mona Van Duyn in 1992, followed by Rita Dove the next year. Louise Glück was named in 2003, Kay Ryan in 2008, and in 2012, Natasha Trethewey. Should I point out that Robert Hayden was the first person of color to be named to the post (1976) and that only Gwen Brooks and Rita Dove have followed him until the recent appointment of biracial Natasha Trethewey? In toto, there have been eleven women and thirty-five men—Stanley Kunitz, Reed Whittemore and Robert Penn Warren were each appointed to a second, though nonconsecutive, term. There have been thirteen Librarians of Congress as well, and never, ça va sans dire, a female Librarian.
The women appointed Poet Laureate have been a notable presence, and I think the role of women poets in America has improved greatly. The younger generation do not call themselves feminists, as they feel the battles associated with the term are only historic. However, the playing field is still not level for women who write poetry–for instance, there are not enough women editors at literary magazines. I hope in the future we don’t need to count, and institutions such as the Library of Congress offer women more than brown bag lunches and leftover wine.