Thursday, April 2, 2015

National Poetry Month—The Urbane, Witty and Prolific Louis Untermeyer

The young businessman, socialist, and poet. 

I wonder if it is still so.  When I was a callow youth Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry, Modern British Poetry, and Fifty Modern American and British Poets, 1920-1970 were the doors through which I was seriously introduced to verse and smitten.  It was so for three or four generations of students who encountered their various editions as college texts or supplementary material for English Lit survey classes.
The prolific writer, editor/compiler, and translator, a man of wide ranging but discerning taste, made it his mission in life to smash the stuffiness out of poetry and the old drudgery of rote memorization that took the joy out of it for many children.  He wanted to share his unbridled joy in the form.  “What most of us don’t realize is that everyone loves poetry,” he said.
Untermeyer was born in New York City on October 1, 1885.  He was the son of a successful and well established jeweler in the city and a mother who introduced him early to poetry and fanciful tales by reading to him.  He absorbed popular American epics by William Wadsworth Longfellow like Paul Revere’s Ride and The Song of Hiawatha.   Reading on his own at an early age he was smitten by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Dante’s Divine Comedy in the editions lavishly illustrated by French illustrator Gustave Dore who he would employ 50 years later to illustrate his own anthologies for children.  By his teen years, he was writing his own parodies and light verse.
Despite his literary bent, Untermeyer dutifully dropped out of school at the age of 14 to go to work as a salesman with the Untermeyer-Robbins Company, his father’s company.  That was in 1902.  Four years later he continued on a conventional course when he married Jean Starr and fathered a son, Richard who died at the age of 20.  Known for his wit and charm, Untermeyer was sacksful in his business career, advancing to company vice president in charge of its Newark, New Jersey factory.
All during these years, Untermeyer continued to dabble in poetry.  His father, perhaps fearful of quashing his son’s dreams, financed his first book, The Younger Quire in 1911.  It was a well received collection of humorous verse.  He followed that up that same year with a more serious collection, First Love.
With his literary interests, Untermeyer naturally gravitated toward Greenwich Village which was already known as a cradle for writers, artists—and radicals.  He made friends in all of these circles, including some lifelong connections.  Like many young secular Jews of his generation in New York, he was attracted to social reform and socialism.  Radical journalist Jack Reed, noted for creating the Patterson Pageant at Madison Square Garden and later for chronicling the Russian Revolution and helping to found the American Communist Party, was a close friend.   Untermeyer’s next books, The Challenge in 1914 and These Times in 1917 reflected his socialism.
He joined the staff of The Masses, one of the most significant Marxist magazines of the era, as the literary era.  Untermeyer supported the magazine opposition to World War I, which was reflected in his commentary and poetry.  In 1917 the Federal government suppressed The Masses by revoking its mailing permits for violating the Espionage Act by criticizing the War, the Draft, and recruiting. Untermeyer moved over to The Liberator, published by the small Workers Party of America and then wrote for the independent socialist magazine The New Masses. These associations, as we will see, had devastating personal consequences for him decades later, long after he had left socialism behind him.
After the war, Untermeyer concentrated more on his literary interests, although he continued for a while to contribute to the radical press and remained a lifelong liberal in support of social justice.  He was a co-founder of The Seven Arts, a poetry magazine credited with introducing many new poets to American audiences including Robert Frost who had achieved his first success in Britain.  Frost became Untermeyer’s long-time friend and correspondent.  He would later compile a collection of their correspondence into an influential book which illuminated many of Frosts ideas about the art of writing poetry.
His big projects in the post war years were the assembly of the first editions of his anthologies, Modern American Poetry and Modern British Poetry.  The books were both enormous success and were soon standard issue on American liberal arts campuses.  He also issued three new personal collections, Including Horace in 1919, The New Adam in 1920, and Roast Leviathan in 1923, all for his new prestigious new publisher, Harcourt.
All of this prodigious output came as he was still working full time as an executive for the jewelry company.  But by 1923, with the sale of his anthologies and poetry sufficient to provide a comfortable living, Untermeyer could retire from business as the age of 38 to dedicate himself to a literary career.  
And what a career.  Over the next decades Untermeyer would go on to write, edit, or co-edit, or translate nearly 100 more books, including ground-breaking anthologies for children.  Although bereft of even a high school diploma he would be honored with multiple honorary degrees and be invited to be a visiting professor or writer in residence at several colleges.  He was in high demand on the lecture and reading circuit, in no small part for his endless supply of humorous stories, jokes, and witticisms.   His book included anthologies of humor and analysis and criticism of humor in literature.  He became a popular guest on several network radio programs and was one of those rare poets who was a public celebrity.  

With first and third wife Jean Starr and radical painter Rockwell Kent in 1930 at Kent's rural New York home and studio.

But there was also personal turmoil.  The sudden death of his beloved 20 year old son in 1927, along with his own infidelity, put stress on his 21 year marriage to Jean, which ended in divorce that year.  He immediately wed the poet Virginia Moore.  They had a son, John Moore Untermeyer.  In 1929 the couple went through a bitter divorce in which she got custody of their son and in revenge changed his name to John Fitzallen Moore. After this break-up, Untermeyer reconciled with his first wife Jean and remarried her the same year.  They adopted two sons together.  But once again, the marriage did not last and they were divorced in 1930.
In 1933 Untermeyer married again, this time to Esther Antin, a lawyer he met in Toledo, Ohio while on a speaking tour.  The marriage endured until they, too, divorced in 1945.  During their marriage he published his first book of autobiography, From Another World which included many anecdotes about the famous writers and poets he had known and encouraged.  Thirty years later he would publish a second volume of memoirs, Bygones.
After World War II and his third divorce, in 1948 Untermeyer remarried for the final time to Bryna Ivens, a senior editor at Seventeen Magazine.  By all accounts their long marriage was a happy one, in no small part because the two closely collaborated on dozens of books for children and youth, including anthologies—Big and Little Creatures, Beloved Tales, Old Friends and Lasting Favorites, Fun and Fancy, and Creatures Wild and Tame.  In addition she was his editorial assistant on the still in print The Golden Book of Poems for the Very Young.

On What's My Line in September 1950 with host John Charles Daly, Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Frances, and comic Joey Adams.

In 1950 Untermeyer was delighted to be selected to be one of the regular panelists on the new Mark Goodson and Bill Todman TV game show What’s My Line which premiered on February 2, 1950.  The show, hosted by the suave newsman John Charles Daly, was a quintessential New York production featuring a panel drawn from the glitterati of the fashionable cocktail circuit and the questions to mystery guests showcased the witty repartee of the panel which originally included gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Broadway actress Arlene Francis, and radio comedian Hal Block in addition to Untermeyer.    
Unfortunately despite never having been a Communist, and having not been more than casually politically active in decades, Untermeyer’s old associations and casually signing a few petitions offered to him by friends on things like civil rights and support for Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War had caused him to be named by others in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Groups like the Catholic War Veterans and other ultra-right organizations launched a letter writing campaign to CBS Television demanding that he be removed from the show.  Articles began appearing in the press and some newspapers supported the call editorially.  Goodson and Todman at first resisted the mounting pressure, but when picketing was launched at the New York studios from which the show was broadcast live the show sponsor, the makers of Stopette Deodorant, panicked and demanded his removal.
Untermeyer last appeared on the program on March 11, 1951, a little more than a year after the premier.  Afterward he was told that he had to be let go.  No announcement of his departure or explanation of it was ever made to the press.   The next week publisher Bennett Cerf, a bland but acceptable raconteur sat in Untermeyer’s chair.
For his part Untermeyer was stunned, confused, and ultimately heart broken.  He plunged into a deep depression and did not leave his Brooklyn apartment for nearly a year.  He would not take phone calls, even from his closest friends like Arthur Miller, who called repeatedly only to be given vague excuses by Bryna.  Miller, who didn’t watch much television and who had seen nothing in the paper about the dismissal was at a loss to understand what had happened.  Eventually Untermeyer recovered and got on with his life, including resuming his relationship with Miller.  The playwright was so affected by Untermeyer’s distress and tales of woe and ruin from other friends that he was moved to write The Crucible, his thinly disguised critique of the McCarthy era set during the Salem Witch Trials.
One of his many beloved anthologies for children and youth.
Untermeyer abandoned New York City—except for frequent trips back to entertain or be entertained by friends—for a Connecticut gentleman’s farm.  He found solace, comfort, and an ideal refuge for his writing and research, in a century old farmhouse, frequently comparing his rural happiness to that of his friend and correspondent Robert Frost.

Within a few years the incident seemed forgotten and Untermeyer resumed his place as one of America’s most honored intellectuals.  In 1956 the Poetry Society of America awarded him it’s Gold Medal.   In 1961, during the Kennedy administration at the urging of his old friend Robert Frost, who turned down the honor, he was selected Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress.  He served until 1963.
Untermeyer and his wife continued their fruitful collaboration and he did independent work up to the time of his death on December 17, 1997 at the age of 92 at Newtown, Connecticut.
Rainbow’s End
“Do you remember at the rainbow’s end
Those flowers trampled by the hurrying rain,
Hanging their heads, knowing they would not spend
Their prodigal colors again?

“Hanging their heads, you laughed, afraid to stare
Back at the boundless apathy of blue.
While arched above them in prismatic air
Their seven colors grew.

“And then, do you remember how you said
That every flower beaten to the ground
Blossoms in beds of light, and shook your head,
Half playful, half profound?

“And stooped and picked two petals suddenly
And let them fall—do you remember—so ...?”
I have forgotten. “And how you answered me?
How all the heaven flamed ... Remember?” No.

—Louis Untermeyer

Untermeyer was largely a secular Jew, but he wrote many poems with spiritual themes and religious, if allegorical, language.  This poem was set to music by Robert N. Quaile and is the first song in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition.

Prayer For This House

May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill-fortune never pry
About these windows; may the roar
And rains go by.

Strengthened by faith, the rafters will
Withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
Will keep you warm.

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
Touching your lips with holy wine,
Till every casual corner blooms
Into a shrine.

Laughter shall drown the raucous shout
And, though the sheltering walls are thin,
May they be strong to keep hate out.
And hold love in.

—Louis Untermeyer

Untermeyer could, and did, stare his own foibles frankly down.  Take this one where he acknowledges the failure that shipwrecked his marriages and relationships.


You have not conquered me—it is the surge
Of love itself that beats against my will;
It is the sting of conflict, the old urge
That calls me still.

It is not you I love—it is the form
And shadow of all lovers who have died
That gives you all the freshness of a warm
And unfamiliar bride.

It is your name I breathe, your hands I seek;
It will be you when you are gone.
And yet the dream, the name I never speak,
Is that that lures me on.

It is the golden summons, the bright wave
Of banners calling me anew;
It is all beauty, perilous and grave—
It is not you.

—Louis Untermeyer

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this peek into the fascinating life of Mr. Untermeyer.