A Memoir by Reed Whittemore
AGAINST THE GRAIN : The Literary Life Of A Poet,
Dryad Press( in association with Univ. of Alaska Press,) © 2007.
ISBN: 978-1-928755-09-8. 338p.
Orders: www.dryadpress.com $26.95
Notes on Reed Whittemore’s life by Grace Cavalieri, TMR Book Editor
Edward Reed Whittemore was born in New Haven Connecticut in 1919 and educated at Phillips Academy, Andover and Yale. During college he and James Angleton founded the literary magazine Furioso — this was to mark the beginning of a life-long interest, if not preoccupation, in America’s small magazines and literary journals. After graduation from Yale, 1941, he served in the armed forces in World War ll. After graduate study in history at Princeton, Reed took a teaching post at Carleton College in Minnesota where he reinstated Furioso, and established The Carleton Miscellany. (1947-66.) His first book of poems was published in 1946, and there have been more than fourteen books since. Most notable among his prose writings is a major biography of William Carlos Williams, Poet from Jersey (1975.) Whittemore took a teaching post at University of Maryland, College Park in 1968 where he remained until his retirement in 1988. There he established the magazine Delos. Twice Reed Whittemore served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1964-65 and 1984-85. He was Maryland’s Poet Laureate, 1986-1991. Among other honors, he holds the Harriet Monroe Award from Poetry Magazine. For a time he was literary editor of The New Republic. Reed Whittemore is a distinguished poet and teacher, and throughout this career he has also been active as literary journalist and critic. He is a scholar, historian, biographer, essayist, memoirist; and an expert chronicler of little magazines in America. Reed lives in Maryland with his wife, photographer and fashion designer, Helen Lundeen Whittemore. They had four children.
A COMPOSITE REPLY: Seven Writers respond Reed Whittemore’s Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet
George Soule, Linda Pastan, Myra Sklarew, Judith Harris, Judith Neri, Steven Rubin, Grace Cavalieri,
and A Note from the Publisher, Merrill Leffler.
I certainly enjoyed the book. Much in the early chapters was familiar to me in outline, but in outline only: I knew Reed came from New Haven money (and I knew New Haven from graduate school), but how much money (a butler!) I didn’t know, though I knew he owned a plane at Carleton College. To me the weakest part of the book are the seemingly endless accounts of literary conference Reed organized or attended. I understand why he was proud of what he did, but perhaps these portions of the book will appeal more to persons who were fellow participants.
I’m not sure that the organizing metaphor of being always “against the grain” is entirely successful. I’m sure Reed thinks of himself as being a rebel, but the man I knew was so much more with the grain than I was (I was born in Fargo—not far from where Helen W. was raised) that he seemed to be, if not an establishment representative, a man who lived in some degree of harmony with that establishment. The poems I knew best (“The Farmhouse,” for example) did not seem to go against the grain.
I think a lot of what has been written about Reed recently rather downplays him as a poet. I cannot testify to his stature as a man of letters (his titles are very impressive), but I think he was a more considerable poet than many people give him credit for. I am no poet, but I know one when I read one — a real poet has a voice. When you read through his or her work chronologically you can see the moment that voice appears. (See both Wordsworth in “The Ruined Cottage” and Auden when he was about 24 years old.) Reed has a voice — one I can hear now in my mind as I write this. And he had much to say with that voice.
I do wish Reed’s plan for the book had included more about his teaching. I don’t know about the University of Maryland, but I knew Reed at the beginning and at the end of his Carleton career. He was my teacher for Shakespeare’s histories and comedies in the mid-50s, and he was brilliant; I still trade off his insights. I took the second Shakespeare course from Arthur Mizener; Arthur had more of the common touch, and so probably reached a greater percentage of the students. But Reed was very fine indeed. I later had him for Practical Criticism, a course taught in the living room of the house that has been immortalized in the poem I referred to earlier, “The Farmhouse.” Brilliant. Prepared me to read literature incisively better than any other course I took.
This is probably not important, but when I visited Washington in the mid-sixties, Helen rented me a tux and we all went to a show at The Corcoran. That was the only time I ever met James Angleton — a very intense man as I remember.
George Soule attended Carleton College, Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, and Yale. He taught at Oberlin, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and Carleton. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota.
One thing that strikes me in The Literary Life of a Poet is the vast divide between Reed's generation and that of my grandchildren-- as if centuries, not just decades, have passed. What a time of intellectual ferment and richness that was. I read the letters here and think of how much we are losing by our own abbreviated, almost curt, text messages and emails. We are lucky, as readers, to have this chronicle of those complex years and of the many larger than life people inhabiting them, John Pauker, whom I knew much later, among them.
I spent two lonely years in New Haven in the 1950s when my husband was an intern and I, a new mother, knew no one. I came away with only negative feelings about the place, and they brooked no argument: unfriendly and boring, with a medieval fortress — Yale, turning its cold shoulder on me. (No women allowed in the literature library!) Then I read Reed's account of his childhood and young manhood in a New Haven, so different from the one I remembered. And I can only be frustrated at having missed so much (bad timing?) and bemused to be proven, though only partly, wrong.
I feel strangely connected to The Carleton Miscellany. They sent me one of my very first rejection slips, and it made me feel like a real writer!
At first I was put off by the third person narration of the book (R instead of I) but gradually it started to seem just right. There is a restraint, a refusal to wallow in the merely personal that is exemplified by the technique itself — as well as a touch of the sardonic that is one of the Reed Whittemore trademarks.
This book is more than the literary life of one poet. It is the literary life of a particular era in America-- of a whole generation-- lit up here like a huge old fashioned ocean liner that is just now reaching the horizon and pulling out of sight.
And then, of course, there is the great gift of the poems: brilliant, witty, irreverent, and true.
Linda Pastan has written 12 books of poetry, most recently Queen of a Rainy Country. She served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995, and in 2003 she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
R’s offering of elaborate criticism of a poem by Richard Eberhart — a young college kid taking on a well-known and established poet — had me in mind of a daughter’s editorship of a high school literary magazine. She helped herself to soliciting work from poets I knew, only to reject their work if she saw fit to do so! On the other hand, the sheer bravado of R and Jim Angleton brought about an American classic, Furioso, that resonates to this day as a container and archive of the many facets of leading poets and thinkers of the day. The remarkable, up close portraits of these writers, against the backdrop of the coming war has much to teach us — initial denial and eventual dawning of a force that would sweep across all our lives, particularly following the betrayal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement between Germany and Russia. Suddenly, Pound’s affair with fascism ceased being an intellectual stance. And raised the question of committed poetry that didn’t bark. Many years after this time, at a reunion at the Library of Congress of all the Poets-Laureate, the issue of political poetry was raised. It was Eberhart, I think, who claimed that poetry wasn’t political. William Stafford’s eyebrows arched; a decidedly quizzical expression on his face: "What do the rest of you think about this?" he asked. I was remembering the time when Stafford, through the U.S. Information Service, visited Iran, and in the course of reading poems based on Native American themes found them to be construed by his audience as commentary on the political situation in Iran, including the Shah.
Against the Grain reads across the literary influences of my generation. The world it tells us about is as personal as family. We knew the verses by heart; it wasn’t school where I learned them, but from literary magazines like Furioso, from books, from hearing the poets, from reciting the lines to each other. And there was Pauker, to tell of one of the editors of Furioso. Pauker of the "More Fun House," where literary soirees took place. John Pauker of Angry Candy. Pauker recording in New York with Sartre for the Voice of America. Pauker, a serious translator who would occasionally sign his name under somebody else’s translation, announcing that he had read and approved the translation. Or Pauker (who kindly invited me along), through the courtesy of the U.S.I.A. in King Hussein’s summer palace in Ramallah in the West Bank, holding forth with his Middle Eastern compatriots over a great luncheon feast in 1970. What remarkable characters these were!
Here’s the poem Pauker had put on a broadsheet for his reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the 1977-1978 season:
The Poet in Washington
The ills of a poet are
Dull and routine affairs.
To liven his life, let’s
Kick the poet downstairs
And hear his head
Crunch on the landing.
Back to Reed: I was his student once upon a time, learning about the poets of the First World War and the second. And later I worked with him on Delos, a translation magazine. His wit and irony cleared the air and brought clarity to human relations. He was, from the first, part of the larger world, bringing home to all of us news of that world. And here, in this excellent memoir, Reed Whittemore has done a marvelous thing in lifting the veil from this world that we felt we knew and in bringing it to us and to generations that follow. Merrill Leffler, who keeps a low profile here, deserves enormous credit in seeing this project to fruition.
Editor’s note: In the memoir, R refers to Sklarew’s “archives of the feet” (a metaphor she herself took from Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory) in writing about his first beginning research for his W.C. Williams biography. At first, he though that he need only “sit for a year on a cushion reading” but found that he needed to walk in Williams’ footsteps, so hoofed it off to Rutherford, New Jersey. R also comments on Sklarew's lament "for the verbal inheritance of her generation---'broken down sentences still talking'---from Stalin and his kind."
Myra Sklarew is Professor Emerita of Literature, American University. She has authored three chapbooks and six collections of poetry.
Importance is defined as something of weight or value; of being significant and noteworthy; the emphasis on something being important is how it is consequential, with respect to what comes after it as an outcome or development. Reed Whittemore has always been important, and surprising. In fact Whittemore begins his own biography of William Carlos Williams, Poet from Jersey, by writing about the geography, albeit a winding one:
“The Passaic River, which this book is to be about, shares with the Hackensack River lightly to its east the responsibility for having created the Jersey meadows.”
Through the grim, trashy, industrial coastline of towns like Paterson pervaded by stench that could peel away the paint of houses, the reader, the traveler is led to a secret treasure—there in the middle of Paterson, pocketed away, The Great Passaic Falls. So, for Whittemore, the river itself — with its degraded stench — huddled away in the soupy towns — until you eventually overcome it by the beauty of the self-resuscitating falls — became a metaphor for Williams’ pastoral, poetic spirit lurking there, in the sporadic river, hidden within the industrial shell of the town. “It was the hiddeness that appealed to him [Williams] . . . like finding beauty in a weed,” Whittemore writes. He then goes on to quote his biographical subject as he considers the ambiance of the weed—rescuing it from it fate as yet another matter for the dung heap. “The acanthus is a weed that signified for the Greeks neither fruit nor flower but was prized for another reason. Because of that they raised it to the head of their temple column.”
As a biographer, Whittemore manages to capture Williams’s life-long aesthetic of “no ideas, but in things” through merely a page or two of looking at the ugly, hum drum river and its humble surroundings — appearing to be one way, but having a surprising, almost mythic and Wordsworthian beauty underneath. Much of the same humility and surprise (the “beauty of the weed”) characterizes Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet. For Whittemore, selecting Williams as a biographical subject, set a tone for his own memoir. With biographical subjects, issues of transference can be crucial, especially if the life of the subject resonates with aspects of one’s own personal life. Williams and Whittemore came from very different families of origin, different educational backgrounds, and different professions. Yet there is a strong tide of identification with Williams throughout Whittemore’s memoir — an irresistible urge to economize on being the observer even when the topic is one’s own self or emotions; and also an equanimity and frankness that has been the hallmark of being a genuine American. Williams was also rebel, an innovator, a “no rules” kind of poet, a modernist.
Whittemore was of the same temperament, perhaps wittier than Williams, an “antidisestablishmentarianism” kind of guy who liked to buck the system by blending in transparently and then challenging the system from within, not unlike Ellison’s “invisible man.” In one scene, R, at the age boys are charged up with Oedipal fantasizing, is being driven by “his “Republican father” in his “boring Chrysler.” The scene becomes an excellent paradigm for the Lacanian (just after Freud) theory about the law of the father, and how the Oedipal son reluctantly accepts the sexualized substitution of words for the lack of his own power and avoids battling his father for the prize of his mother. Words replace, in the Freudian sense, what has been castrated — as much as it can be in fantasies. But here, R finds that the antiquated word, “antidisestablishmentarianism,” with its twelve syllables, has a power to correct a history of human establishments. He understands how he can destabilize the word by cutting off the syllables, or, by putting new emphasis on certain phonemes. The stakes couldn’t be higher as Whittemore writes:
The word was “antidisestablishmentarianism” and child R was much impressed. He could soon recite it himself, loudly, and would shout the climactic “iz-zum” without needing to know what was or was not to be established. …He found that Lit itself often badly needed disestablishing; further that a sound writerly mission in all life could be made by coping with the establishmentarianism.”
Without going too much further into a psychoanalytic interpretation (which I’m sure Whittemore would not appreciate) I would suggest that this is the primal scene in which the “rebel” (de-establishing father) is born. It is the word itself, relished for its sound on the tongue, its music, apart from its meaning, that Whittemore finds interesting, and extends this interest in breaking things up, syllabically, to a social world filled with hypocrisies having to do with authority and evasion of authority. The new man, R, is frank, with honest regard for other people and things, understanding the rules (particularly formalism) in order to break them, when needed best characterizes R’s view of life. It’s only in the last twenty years, that American poetry has rescinded the crown of free form and reinaugurated respect for formal poetry as a codification of life, rather than a loose expression of life’s stunning vicissitudes. Whittemore was always a silent ironist: he understood the romantic as well as he understood the socialist, and somehow he was able to wed the currents of public and private life into a poetry that is eloquent as it is accessible, and, difficult as it appears simple or inviting.
The first thing that strikes a reader of Against the Grain is Whittemore’s use of the third person, which is a technique both theatrical and analytic, whimsical and merrily narcissistic. Referring to himself as R or “little R” brings up the unavoidable problems of a reader’s resistance to the royal “we” or more distant echoes of Kafka’s K. It is a risky technique — something that offers narrative distance, in pursuit of objectivity — but also surreptitiously pencils in the psychoanalytic dimensions of self-criticism, self-regard, and self-praise. And all of these perspectives have defenses, accordingly. So the reader can feel, sometimes, uncomfortably allied with the memoirist as a piqued ironist. He will, in any case, be vulnerable to the unconscious motives or attacks his narrator makes on people in his life for whom he might feel, outwardly, and consciously, are admirable. But these narrative vulnerabilities, I think, are far outweighed by the benefits of the reader’s enjoyment in reading the book because it is entertaining. The speaker has a humor that is rare in literature today. He is able to poke fun at the earnestness, or overzealousness with which his former self (R.) contended with the academic snobberies of the day, particularly in English Departments. This all makes the book a joy to read as we hear chapter after chapter of R’s ordinarily remarkable life.
History is autobiography. There is a story in every person. Yet R’s life, like Henry Adams’s life, is extraordinary in the way it weaves the individual and global and cultural events together. R is an American with full range — from Yale, and magazine editor of Furioso, which brought him a historical feast of literary correspondents including Ezra Pound, Archibald McLeish and Williams, to World War II, to teaching composition, to family life and moving to Minnesota, to the U.S. Poet Laureateship, and finally journeying abroad — an “American” Henry James would have written into character. Whittemore’s wit, his unceasing scrutiny of the fairness of any situation, his presentation of that Williams-like surprise in plain things, makes the book a joy to read.
Leffler’s editing talents are so subtly and artfully employed so that the book reads elegantly, but unpretentiously. We learn to like R, even love R, and we learn much more about the literary life of American in one letter, one initial. We’ve had the real deal, the real life of an important but modest American poet who cares about people and things and literature; who has mastered it all.
Judith Harris is the author of two books of poetry from LSU Press, Atonement and The Bad Secret; and a critical book from SUNY Press, 2003, Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing.
It cannot have escaped anyone that Reed Whittemore is iconically named: “read Whittemore” is a great imperative, and there is no doubt that he possesses more wit than most poets are granted.
I first met Reed when he was about to retire from the University of Maryland, when the anarchist tendencies he speaks about in Against the Grain led him to form a loosely structured activist faculty group called The Faculty Coalition. In the following year, Reed, my husband Umberto, and a handful of colleagues organized a union called The Faculty Guild, a local of the American Federation of Teachers.
But I already admired him from afar for his poem about the bomb shelter: "Reflections upon a Recurrent Suggestion By Civil Defense Authorities That I Build a Bomb Shelter in My Backyard." I found this poem in an anthology of poets’ favorites among their own poems called Poet's Choice, edited by Paul Engle and Joseph Langland, (Time Inc., New York, 1962), a collection in which most of the modernist poets who turned up in Reed's Furioso and his later small magazines appear as well. In fact, Reed's poem is right next to one by Howard Nemerov, a Furioso colleague. I'll never forget the end of that poem:
But I'll not, no, not do it, not go back
And lie there in that dark under the weight
Of all that earth on that old door for my state.
I know too much to think now that, if I creep
From the grown-up's house to the child's house, I'll keep.
It is so eloquent in Reed's anti-rhetorical way, and progressive, two qualities I already knew were hard to combine. Then I discovered The Feel of the Rock – and was hooked! There are so many marvelous poems in that book, but I particularly loved the one called "Clamming," which is included in Against the Grain, and, I'm not surprised, in many anthologies.
When The Faculty Voice, the newspaper of the University of Maryland faculty, came into being, Reed was asked to serve on the paper's board, and I was named managing editor. There he continued to popular acclaim the satiric form he had begun in The Feel of the Rock, the “shaggy,” to the delight of the faculty readership. I never had the opportunity to take a course from him, perhaps because I already had a Ph.D. on the analytic side of the humanities and only dreamed of becoming a poet. But there he was — so I screwed up my courage and showed him some poem drafts, and he kindly gave them back to me with some pointers, Poetry 101, for all I knew then. My recollection is that he said: "All adjectives are suspect — cut them as ruthlessly as possible!” (Very helpful!) And also: "sometimes you have to cut a lot, but then you may need to add back something new." I found it very reassuring to think that if you cut something, you might be able to find something new and presumably better to replace it!
But Reed's great wit — he is Auden and the 18th-century satirical poets in modern drag — came in totally unexpected forms. It involved a thoroughgoing suspicion of authority, a wry, self-deprecating whimsy, and a way of making a finely worked poem seem utterly natural, almost conversational. Once he showed me a draft of a poem about Job he had written in his shaggy voice, a poem just calling out for censure and hysterically funny. Merrill Leffler, who helped Reed put together Against the Grain and published it for Dryad Press, told me that the Job poem was never published — too subversive, perhaps.
So the third thing that I learned from Reed was that poetry could be humorous and serious at the same time, and that humor’s ambiguity could often provide the best, and sometimes sneaky, way to be serious. That was a very big lesson!
An anecdote: during the time when Reed and my husband were working together for the faculty union, he came to dinner together with a colleague from Criminology named Bart Ingraham, who was also an Andover and, I believe, a Yale man. The two regaled each other and us with stories of those days, and of course Ezra Pound took center stage. We will never forget the image of Pound sitting on the floor under a table in Reed's parents’ house — (in order not to be disturbed, of course — reading Lao Tzu! How Pound is that?!
A word about Merrill Leffler’s collaboration with Reed on Against the Grain. What a contribution they have made to American letters! It is such an engaging book, one which every poet should have on his/her bedside table, filled with the thoughts and tales of most of the major poets of the last century, and Reed’s musing on them, a very rich brew. There is so much to learn from it!
Judy Neri, poet, essayist on the arts and humanities PhD, was also a college teacher, labor organizer and editor. She is the author of a new book of poems entitled Always the Trains (New Academia Publishing, January, 2008)
Steven H. Rubin
When I left Carleton College in 1955 I mailed home those books Reed Whittemore had mentioned in class or over coffee, almost all of them bought at the college bookstore.
They included Conrad Aiken, Collected Poems; W. H. Auden, The Collected Poetry; Elizabeth Bishop, Poems; Louise Bogan, Collected Poems: 1923--57; Lewis O. Coxe, The Sea Faring; Anthony Hecht, A Summoning of Stones; Randall Jarrell, Losses; Donald Justice, The Old Bachelor and Other Poems; Weldon Kees, The Fall of the Magicians; Robert Lowell, The Mills of the Kavanaughs; Archibald MacLeish, Collected Poems, 1917--1952; Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems; Marianne Moore, Collected Poems; Howard Moss, The Wound and the Weather, Howard Nemerov, Guide to the Ruins; Henry Reed, A Map of Verona; Karl Shapiro, Poems: 1940--1953, William Carlos Williams, Paterson and Selected Poems.
There were a few others, but I dare not include Yeats and Frost and some undoubtedly acquired because of Reed’s colleagues. When the books got to Long Island my parents asked if I’d really been a Government & International Relations major. Not a good one, I knew: Reed and poetry had taken me over.
Steven H. Rubin lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. He taught English and journalism, then made a marginal living as a boating writer.
Some notes about Reed Whittemore as we read AGAINST THE GRAIN: The Literary Life of a Poet
Reed Whittemore is a poet who has always looked at the larger politics of poetry and its institutions as defining the tone of our country. This is a role he took seriously, seeing the writer as accountable and part of the public debate. This is why - when he wrote the definitive biography of William Carlos Williams, it was such a powerful vehicle, for it shows the changing of the American grain, and the poet as reflective of his culture. Whittemore, an historian, is watchful of culture. He has tracked grass roots publishing throughout the century and is our national authority on the advent of the little magazine and small press. Every great American poet began publishing in small press, and looking at this tells the American story. His own writing often paints establishments with irony and even a little cynicism. His relationship poems are beautiful and conclude his role as son, husband, father. He moved to writing fables, a philosophical shift where we feel he wants to side step a reality he does not want to address. It is as if the fables belong to the child’s view, where he once knew unhindered possibilities. Reed Whittemore cannot write anything uninteresting or unimaginative. He writes of literary figures from Petrarch to twentieth century giants. Because he is an honorable man, he defines writers in terms of political climate, and we are richer for his perspectives. Reed Whittemore is at once humorous wry and sardonic. He is our expert on American modernism. When he writes of other great contemporary writers being against piousness, we know it is a value he shares. He says ugliness is often an impetus for poetry; we can believe Reed Whittemore thinks poetry must come from the impious as well. In his seminal poem “An American Takes A Walk, “ we hear a wise, bittersweet voice. About the poet, he ends with these stanzas: ‘He could not have been more cared for/ Nature was awfully kind/ Hell in that motherly habit/put hell quite out of mind./How in that arden could human/Frailty be but glossed?/How in that Eden could Adam/Really be lost? ‘ Against the Grain should be in every college classroom.
Grace Cavalieri is the author of poetry books and plays. She is Book Review Editor for The Montserrat Review.
A Note from the Publisher, Merrill Leffler
To begin with Against the Grain is fun— yes, fun — to read; it is at the same time a serious book about a long literary life and what that literary life has been engaged in. And it has been much. To many, the narration in third-person — we read about R, not I — will seem quirky, if not eccentric, and may at first need some getting used to. (I only know of two before this one: Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, which Reed refers to in his preface, and Conrad Aiken’s Ushant. You will not mistake Whittemore’s voice, for if you know his poetry at all, you will recognize it at once. Ironic, witty, comedic, serious, funny. And the narration, too, won’t necessarily be a surprise. Numbers of Reed’s poems are in third-person.
For instance, “The Cultural Conference” opens this way: “The author, critic and cultural messenger/ Comes to the cultural conference with snap-on tie, two shirts and a briefcase. . ./ He smiles, looks at his watch, hunches over the lectern/And recites.” Here is the beginning of “The Departure”: “The artist must leave these woods now.,/ He must put his books and files back in the car. . . .” And here are lines from “The Renaissance Man”: “Late, late, he was always late. . . ./Why did the children shriek right under his window?/ Why were the days like a junk shop? — the hours in fragments,/ His desk still cluttered with coffee cups, Longfellow, stamps. . . .”
In the memoir as in the poems, the third-person gives Reed the latitude to look at his alter ego’s wide-ranging literary life with that wry and sometimes dispassionate and self-deprecating objectivity, an objectivity that he might not have been able to carry off with such convincingness in first-person. It enables him to take R seriously and comically simultaneously: the Poet as poor forked animal — the Romantic who distrusts the romantic in himself.
Even those who know Reed’s poetry and his biography of William Carlos Williams may not be aware of his immersion into the genre of biography itself. He is the author of Pure Lives: The Early Biographers and Whole Lives: Shapers of Modern Biography (both from Johns Hopkins University Press), two brief volumes on the history of biography as a genre, let alone Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos and Tate (University of Missouri Press). This is to say that Reed was no naïf when it came to writing this literary memoir — he well knew what he was about.
Reflecting on Against the Grain, I want to say that I believe Reed has a good deal to say that would be of more than passing interest to readers interested in 20th century literature in general and to poets and university teachers in particular. Why? Because he writes about writing itself (especially during wartime), about literary magazines and their role in our culture, about a remarkable (and wild) conference on little mags he convened at the Library of Congress when he was Consultant (now U.S. Poet Laureate), about the impact of social sciences on education, about the role of a poet in our culture. And much more. Over his long life, he has been a man of many parts — as Victor Navasky, Publisher Emeritus of The Nation puts it, “Brilliant and original poet, editor, teacher, satirist, ironist, wit, provocateur, literary lobbyist, anti-bureaucratic cultural bureaucrat, interdisciplinarian, Whittemore’s way of deepening, as distinguished from promoting, democracy has been to carry on its conversation in exemplary tropes. Our country and our culture are the better for it.”
Merrill Leffler is the author of two poetry collections. He founded Dryad Press which now celebrates it fortieth year with the publication of Reed Whittemore’s MEMOIRS, Against the Grain.