By CRAIG D'OOGE
As Robert Hass looked out at the large crowd gathered for an afternoon reading on April 24 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Library of Congress poetry program, he had one word to say: "Wow."
After a pause, he said, "I wish everybody in this room could come up here one at a time and see this."
The combined effect of the crowd and the glories of the newly renovated Northwest Pavilion of the Jefferson Building rendered the nation's poet laureate temporarily speechless. But he recovered and announced he would begin the program by reading a poem by former Consultant in Poetry Elizabeth Bishop. The poem was "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress." It was a view familiar to all the poets, as the Poetry Office on the top floor of the Jefferson Building overlooks the Capitol across the street.
Eleven former consultants and poets laureate participated in the readings, which were given in two parts. Mr. Hass, Anthony Hecht, Mark Strand, Mona Van Duyn and Reed Whittemore read at 4:30 p.m., and Rita Dove, Daniel Hoffman, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, William Meredith and William Jay Smith read at 8 p.m. Of the surviving alumni who had been consultants, five were unable to attend. Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wilbur had long-standing previous engagements. Josephine Jacobsen and Karl Shapiro were kept away by poor health.
The specific duties of the poet laureate have always been kept to a minimum, in order (in the official language of the Library of Congress) "to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects." But poets are sensitive to their environment. Eventually Washington works its will, as Mr. Hass learned when he was asked to write something for Justice William Brennan's retirement from the Supreme Court. At first he declined the offer, only to awaken the next morning with what he called a "mildly official" poem wanting to be written after all. The poem was "The Woods in New Jersey," which he read next. It describes a winter woods, with tree trunks likened to "Vertical musics the cold makes visible,/ That holds the whole thing up and gives it form."
Call that, Mr. Hass writes, "the law, more of interests than of reasons." He then remarks on deer, "so much the color of the trees, they hardly seem to move."
After he read the poem, Mr. Hass said Justice Brennan had once asked him, "Am I the deer?" The poet left the answer unsaid, presumedly to keep the poem only "mildly" official.
Mr. Hass closed his turn at reading with two more poems from his latest volume, Sun Under Wood, "Iowa City: Early April" and "Jatun Sacha." Both poems address human encounters with the natural world and the exchange of being that sustains both. In the former, a raccoon is caught in a flashlight:
"I was thinking he couldn't know how charming his comic-book/ robber's mask was to me,/ That his experience of his being and mine of his and his of mine/ were things entirely apart/ Though there were between us, probably, energies of shrewd and/ respectful tack, based on curiosity and fear -- "
Reed Whittemore read next. He followed Mr. Hass's lead in reading first a poem by another consultant. This time it was a prose poem by Karl Shapiro, one appropriate for a reunion. The poem contrasts two voyages, widely separated by time, that Mr. Shapiro made on the Queen Mary. On the first, he was bound for Europe as a soldier during World War II. On the second, he was a paying passenger, addressed as "sir." The ship is the same, but the man has changed.
Mr. Whittemore then introduced a poem of his own, "Today," based on a lecture he once gave about "how to misunderstand poetry." Taking aim at critics and publishers, he said, "I want to climb up some big publishing mountain and wear a skullcap." "The Schools" followed next, a poem about the pull of the past in the form of college alumni offices that will just not "let go." Mr. Whittemore's uneasy relationship with the intractable nature of words was the subject of "The Word Man," while "The Old Cap" explored the "meteorology of thought," and "Reveille" the physics of getting out of bed in the morning. Mr. Whittemore closed with a reading of "The Eumenides," written, he explained, "because the word sounds so good."
Mark Strand began with a poem called "In Memory of Joseph Brodsky," the former poet laureate who died last year, followed by an untitled poem about the passage of time. He also read "The Beach Hotel," "Old Man Leaves Party," "A Piece of the Storm" and "What It Was."
Mona Van Duyn acknowledged the absent Richard Wilbur by reading one of his poems. She then followed with one of her own that drew a parallel between two types of gardens and two types of poetry. The gardens are the Japanese and English styles, the first characterized by "trivialities arranged to look significant" and the second by acres of land and huge vistas punctuated with a "folly."
Ms. Van Duyn ended on a light note, with a poem about the enduring differences of marriage, "Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat in the Kitchen," occasioned by making spaghetti with her husband. (He prefers to measure.) She then introduced Anthony Hecht, who read three poems, "Sisters," based on a letter Robert Frost wrote to his sister who was in a lunatic asylum in Maine, and "Blue Interior with Two Girls, 1947," based on a Matisse painting.
The afternoon of readings ended where it began, on the subject of absent poets. Anthony Hecht read "Death for the Poet: A Lament for the Makers." The poem used a Latin refrain that translates, "and now I sleep in the dust," leaving the audience to wonder to whom these words might apply at the next reunion.
Mr. D'Ooge is Media Director in the Public Affairs Office.