By DONNA URSCHEL
Seven Poets Laureate/Consultants in Poetry gathered in the Coolidge Auditorium on the evening of Oct. 6 to read in celebration of the new book “The Poets Laureate Anthology.” Not since a laureate reunion in 1978 has so much poetic talent convened for a reading at the Library of Congress.
The masters of poetry included Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Daniel Hoffman, Maxine Kumin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic and Mark Strand. They appeared before an enthusiastic and overflowing crowd, reading selections from their favorite laureates as well as their own work.
All 43 of the U.S. Poets Laureate/Consultants in Poetry are represented in the anthology, which includes some of the world’s best-known poems and charts the course of American verse during the past 75 years. The 816-page book is published by the Library of Congress in cooperation with W. W. Norton.
After welcoming remarks from Dr. James H. Billington, the lineup started with Collins, who brought his well-known sense of humor to the stage. He even started with a nod to a classic joke: “I asked Dr. Billington if he had any light-bulbs that needed changing, because we have seven poets laureate, and we can do it.”
Collins paid tribute to Howard Nemerov, who twice served as top poet, from 1963 to 1964 and 1988 to 1990, and to Karl Shapiro, 1946–1947. “They taught me that it was OK to allow a sense of humor into your poems,” he said. Collins read Nemerov’s “Money: An Introductory Lecture.” Collins, who was Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, followed “Money” with three poems of his own, including “Sonnet,” “Forgetfulness” and “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal.”
Rita Dove, 1993–1995, was the second laureate to approach the stage. “You should see the atmosphere in the back,” she said, referring to the poets offstage. “We’re all changing light bulbs.”
Dove saluted Louise Bogan, 1945–1946, and Robert Hayden, 1976–1978. Dove said, “Louise Bogan was quite a seminal influence for me. There was a quiet power I found in her poems.” She read Bogan’s “Medusa” and Hayden’s “Homage to the Empress of the Blues.” Dove said she enjoyed the musicality and irony of Hayden’s poems. “The love of his poems has sustained me,” she said.
From her own work, Dove read “This Life,” a poem that celebrates books and libraries, which she recited at the opening of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas. She also read “The Bridgetower,” a tribute to the friendship of biracial violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Daniel Hoffman, 1973–1974, said the anthology was “a great doorstopper of a book.” The purpose of the book, he said, was to introduce the reader to the poetry in its pages and to encourage people to turn to other books by the Poets Laureate/Consultants in Poetry.
Hoffman paid tribute to William Jay Smith, 1968–1970, a poet he much admired, and read Smith’s “The World Below the Window.” He then read eight of his poems, including “Reasons,” a love poem to his late wife.
Maxine Kumin, 1981–1982, happy to see the full house, said the attendance indicated that poetry “is alive and well in Washington, D.C.” She talked about Josephine Jacobsen, 1971–1973: “I had the great good fortune to get to know her, and we remained good friends to the end of her life.” She read Jacobsen’s “Gentle Reader.” Of her own poems, Kumin read “Seven Caveats in May,” “Fat Pets On” and “The Revisionist Dream.”
Kay Ryan, 2008–2010, just finished her laureateship in June. “It feels unfair to be back so soon,” joked Ryan, a well-known recluse who happens to excel at the podium. She paid tribute to William Carlos Willams by reading his “Dance Russe,” a poem that celebrates loneliness. “For a long time, I had this poem on my bulletin board,” Ryan said. “Mutual loneliness is a kind of relationship I enjoy with others.”
Ryan read nine of her poems, which she said she could do because her poems were short. The first was “Flamingo Watching,” which she described as a protest poem, “protesting the un-ornate.” “This poem is a cry for excess,” she remarked. Among the other poems were “Force,” “Doubt,” “Odd Blocks” and “Relief.” Ryan said relief was one of her favorite emotions and should be rated as important—in the panoply of emotions—as love and sorrow.
Charles Simic, 2007–2008, the second laureate to salute Louise Bogan, read Bogan’s poem “Cartography.” He also read three of his own, including the humorous “My Beloved,” “Prodigy” and “In the Library.”
Mark Strand, 1990–1991, the final poet to read, recalled how Anthony Hecht, 1982–1984, and his wife “were very generous to me when I was in Washington, D.C.” He read Hecht’s poem “A Hill,” and he also read “Fall 1961” by Robert Lowell, 1947–1948. Strand said he wanted to read two of his old poems—“not to say I wouldn’t write them again, but it’s highly unlikely.” He read “Pot Roast” and “Eating Poetry.”
Note to Billy Collins: No need for light bulbs. The Poets Laureate/Consultants in Poetry had shined brilliantly through the night.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Office of Communications.