Tribute to Reed Whittemore

A Tribute to Reed Whittemore

After a long illness, Reed Whittemore died on April 6, Good Friday, the first night of Passover — he was 92. Many of you had some connection to Reed, even if many years ago. I want to speak about him as a poet and literary editor.

Reed had twice been Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, now called U.S. Poet Laureate, and from 1986-1990, and Poet Laureate of Maryland. He taught at Carleton College for nearly twenty years, beginning there after WWII, then at the University of Maryland through the 80s, and served as literary editor of The New Republic (1969-1973). Among his 11 collections of poetry, The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House (1974) was nominated for a National Book Award. Dryad Press published a New and Selected Poems in 1982, The Feel of Rock, and in 2007, Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet, a memoir in which Reed writes of himself, R, from a unique third-person point of view.

Some years back, James Dickey wrote of Reed in Poetry magazine that, “as a poet with certain very obvious and amusing gifts, he is almost everyone’s favorite. Certainly he is one of mine. Yet there are dangerous favorites and inconsequential favorites and favorites like pleasant diseases. What of Whittemore? He is as wittily cultural as they come, he has read more than any . . . man anybody knows, has been at all kinds of places, yet shuffles along in an old pair of tennis shoes and khaki pants, with his hands in his pockets.” (There is more at the Poetry website)

Reed was no shuffler, as Victor Navasky, Publisher Emeritus of The Nation, wrote of him on the occasion of Against the Grain: “Brilliant and original poet, editor, teacher, satirist, ironist, wit, provocateur, literary lobbyist, anti-bureaucratic cultural bureaucrat, interdisciplinarian, his way of deepening, as distinguished from promoting, democracy has been to carry on its conversation in exemplary tropes. Our county and our culture are the better for it.”

As a poet and little magazine editor, Reed started out at Yale as an undergraduate in the late 1930s, when he and James Jesus Angleton, later the (infamous) head of counterintelligence at the CIA, founded Furioso, a literary magazine that began by publishing such poets as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Richard Eberhart, and many more. Whittemore and Angleton were undergraduates! Williams wrote the two about their new venture:

“The name FURIOSO is a knockout. Nothing could be more to the point. If youth ain’t furioso at the shitty spectacle the world presents today with all its backhouses propped up on the official stilts — then it ain’t worth a damn. Start furioso. You’ll be geniuses if you can bring it out.” Years later Reed went on to write an engaging biography of Williams, Poet from Jersey.

Ezra Pound was in New Haven to see Reed and Jim and stayed the night with Reed’s parents — some years later, Reed remembered the “semi-divine Ezra’s visit” with a touch of satiric wit:

“Having seated himself in a large armchair, Pound spread himself out in vast disarray while we gathered around and waited for the word, whatever the word was to be. It took no time coming: ‘Mrs. Whittemore, would you be so kind as to fetch me the book I left on my bed?’ My mother fetched the book — it was a book of Chinese ideographs — and gave it to him. He opened it (from the back) as if we were not in the room at all and he was settling down for a quiet evening alone with Mei Sheng and Rihaku. But in less than thirty seconds he looked up, reacknowledged our presence, sighed noisily, and said, “How restful!'”

Then came WWII, just after graduation — Reed enlisted in the army, but soon went on to become an officer: as a transportation officer, he was at the edges of the war in North Africa and Italy. All through those wartime years, he and his former teacher-mentor, Arthur Mizener, the first biographer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, kept up a vigorous literary correspondence — the conversations had little to do with the war and everything to do with poetry, the books they were reading, literary magazines and literary gossip. Their back-and-forth letters — there are scores of them — are all together at the University of Maryland Hornbake Library.

His satiric and sometimes cutting wit was bounded by civility — he had, as Roger Rosenblatt wrote, “an intolerance for cant.” Here is Henry Allen, Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic of the Washington Post: “I recognize a true Yankee in this man, the sort of Yankee Mark Twain would have loved: direct and modest to the point of wryness. Feel free to laugh but be sure to take him seriously.”

The war “interrupted” Furioso — but back home in 1946, Reed started it up again, drawing on the help of a few poet friends, including Howard Nemerov and John Pauker. For nearly 40 years Nemerov and Reed were in constant touch — they wrote each other as friends and as editors; they complimented each others’ work, criticized it, commiserated on their literary miseries — and there is, as with Arthur Mizener, not a little literary gossip. In one letter, for example, R wrote, “Had dinner last week with Robt Frost at the [Allen] Tates, and found it most pleasurable till John Berryman entered and began to ridicule the old boy. I am thinking of a return to the golden age when there was — so I’ve heard — only grace and gentility in wit and the newflangled slobs hadn’t arrived yet. But I’ve also heard that the golden age was a bit of a fraud too; at any rate, for about two hours I really felt I was in it; then Frost began to repeat himself and Berryman came in. Still, it was quite a fine evening.”

He published his first book of poems, Heroes & Heroines in 1946, made up of poems largely written during the war years. It was ten years before his next, An American Takes a Walk, though books of poetry followed regularly afterwards, all of them cultivating a recognizable voice — conversational, comedic, sometimes darkly so, genial and genially angry. Among those early books, The Self-Made Man (1959), The Boy From Iowa (1962), The Fascination of the Abomination: Poems, Stories, Essays (1963), Poems, New and Selected (1967).

Meanwhile, Reed could not get enough of literary magazines — editing them, contributing to them, and writing about them. The University of Minnesota published his long monograph, The Literary Magazine and Contemporary Literature. Later on, as U.S. Poet Laureate, he was instrumental in organizing what became the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, which went on to fund hundreds of “littles,” and served as CCLM’s first secretary. And long after he closed down Furioso, in 1953, “feeling that its intensity had been softening” and had left Minnesota and The Carleton Miscellany, he took over Delos in the 1980s, a magazine of translation, and rousted up money to support it and a diverse group of literary contributors.

On The Carleton Miscellany: feeling the urge to get into the little magazine fray again, Reed and co-editor colleagues at Carleton College got the backing of Carleton’s then president, Lawrence Gould. (There’s more on the Miscellany at

Reed may have been an academic but he did not come in through the front door — after the war, he did graduate work in history at Princeton, then left and made his way to Carleton College, where then-chairman of the English Department Arthur Mizener hired him for a year.

He was there for 17 years, before coming to Washington in 1964, with wife Helen, Cate, Ned, Jack (Daisy was later born in Washington), and the Library of Congress as Consultant in Poetry. “The Poet as Bureaucrat” in Against the Grain gives a view of his tenure, including the raucous meeting of little magazine editors he convened. Geoffrey Wolff reported in The Washington Post Book World that “Participants argued with panel members and with themselves, often yelling their frequently scornful opinions above the protests of Whittemore. The arguments went to the touchstone of art: Is its function to join society in a hope of leading and instructing it? The answer, for the most part, seemed to be an aghast NO! The little magazine must, most panelists agreed, remain aloof from the restrictive requirements of the big financial foundations and from Government subsidy.”

While the Whittemore family went back to Carleton after that year, they departed Minnesota for good a year later, returning to Washington for good, where Reed went on to become literary editor of The New Republic and to teach at the University of Maryland. He eventually left TNR to write the biography of William Carlos Williams but not before publishing The Poet As Journalist: Life at the New Republic, a marvelous collection of his essays and reviews of poetry, TV & journalism, and what he called in typical Whittemore fashion The Kulch, an array of pieces that covered “English Department Ills” to the problem with the social sciences.

I first met Reed at Maryland where I had him for a class on modern poetry — I had left a career in engineering and come back to graduate school, an older student, in the English Department. From the first, I was absorbed by his lectures — not lectures in any formal sense. Hardly! He would begin with a line or some observation and then took us on a seemingly random walk for the next hour or so into the essence of a poet’s work — Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Ransom — returning us (surprise!) to where we started from. What an exhilaration it was to be in that class.

In the latening 60s, I had started a poetry magazine, Dryad, with my friend Neil Lehrman — what a treat it was to publish a handful of Reed’s poems. And then in 1982, I proposed to Reed that we publish a book with a large selection of new and older poems — that became The Feel of Rock. Reed gave me all his work and said, choose! I made the first selection and got in all my favorites! He then went through and said, you do not have any of the Shaggies. I was not crazy about them but we added a few, many of which were to appear in The Washington Post Outlook section. I came to enjoy them greatly. Here is one for you, whether in or out of academic life, The Sad Committee Shaggy:

In good ole day ze king need no committee.
Was nize.
Him says, them does; him sells, them buys.
Good system.
But then come big push make king of guys.
So king buy chairs, say me no king me chairman.
So knocked off paradize.

While Reed retired from university teaching in the 80s, he didn’t retire from teaching — he was invited to be writer in residence at different universities and also taught at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Nor did he retire from writing. Not only poetry but two books on biography, Pure Lives: The Early Biographers and Whole Lives: Shapers of Modern Biography, both from Johns Hopkins University Press — of these, Sherwin Nuland wrote, “they are two of the finest books on the art of biography that I have ever read.”

A third book followed, Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate.

“Impiety” means a lack of reverence for what is supposed to be respected — to be impious for Reed meant to question the status quo and what passes for informed opinion. It is what Reed shared with those writers he singled out in Six Literary Lives. It is what led him to organize poetry readings against the Vietnam War.

I want to say a final word (for now) — Reed has often been characterized as a poet of satire and comic wit. He was that, certainly, and thank goodness! At the same time, his work was touched by the deeper unnameable feelings — that was implied by the title we chose for the book of selected poetry from Dryad Press, The Feel of Rock. Emily Dickinson wrote that she shunned people because they talked of hallowed things aloud and embarrass my dog. Reed’s work often visited those hallowed things, from which he made lasting poems — but he stepped lightly. Here, for example, are lines from “Still Life”:

I must explain why it is that at night in my own house,
Even when no one’s asleep, I feel I must whisper.
Thoreau and Wordsworth could call it an act of devotion;
Others would call it fright. It is probably
Something of both. In my living room there are matters
I’d rather not meddle with
Late at night.

And here is “Inventory”:

To pass through the season of loss and emerge with a good suit
Is to thank God
And take inventory.  The season of waiting is slow.
The clouds hang listlessly.
Where the path bends into the woods
From the meadow
The light is a half light,
And one looks to the north to the hills,
Which are blue.
I will carry the meadow view
Back to the city.

But the woods are close. They crowd in officiously,
Shutting the heavens out.
One sits in the sullenness
With spiders.

I think that before I die I would like to live
In my good suit
In the meadow.

I did not intend to write at such length — I’ll conclude with thoughts by Garrison Keillor, who wrote a substantial foreword to Against the Grain, and then one of Reed’s most anthologized poems: “Reed Whittemore owns the only sort of immortality that matters to a writer, which is to have written things that people remember years later . . . What makes R.W. permanently readable and relevant is his wit and humor, which is the underground spring that keeps the gardens of American literature green . . . . It is what makes Mark Twain readable. And also Sweets Whittemore.

And now “Clamming”:

I go digging for clams once very two or three years
Just to keep my hand in (I usually cut it),
And whenever I do so I tell the same story
Of how at the age of four I was trapped by the tide
As I clammed a sandbar. It’s no story at all
But I tell it and tell it; it serves my small lust
To be thought of as someone who’s lived.
I’ve a war too to fall back on, and some years of flying,
As well as a high quota of drunken parties,
A wife and children; but somehow the clamming thing
Gives me an image of the louder events: me helpless,
Alone with my sandpail,
As fate in the form of soupy Long Island sound
Comes stalking me.I’ve a son now at that age.
He’s spoiled, he’s been sickly.
He’s handsome and bright, affectionate and demanding.
I think of the tides when I look at him.
I’d have him alone and sea-girt, poor little boy.
And pass on the weeping, keep the thing going.

The self, what a brute it is. It wants, wants.
It will not let go of its even most fictional grandeur
But must grope, grope down in the muck of its past
For some little squirting life and bring it up tenderly
To the lo and behold of death, that it may weep

Son, when you clam,
Watch out for the tides and take care of yourself,
Yet no great care,
Lest you care too much and brag of the caring
And bore your best friends and inhibit your children and sicken
At last into opera on somebody’s sandbar. Son, when you clam,

Merrill Leffler