As a young man, I believed all the great poets were dead poets. I even took a train across Ireland to pay homage to the long dead Yeats, but every day as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s I encountered living poets. In fact, three of those poets now stand among the giants; each was or became U.S. Poet Laureate.
Those three—Robert Hayden, Donald Hall and Joseph Brodsky—followed in the footsteps of an earlier laureate: Robert Frost had taught at Michigan during the 1920s. But by then, Frost was dead and in the pantheon, and the poets now at U-M were not yet so celebrated.
“Needful to man as air”
Although I never told him, even though I saw him every day, Robert Hayden’s poetry sometimes moved me to tears. The line in his poem “Frederick Douglass,” when he describes freedom as “this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air,” still takes my breath away. Years later, when I was at work on my own book The House at the End of the Road, I even called one of the chapters “A Beautiful, Needful Thing,” since Hayden’s poetry inspired every word in that chapter.
But I never mustered the courage to utter a single word to him. He was, to me, intimidating, gazing from behind off-putting large glasses, and seeming never to smile. And he held the position of the United States’s version of the Poet Laureate—he was the first African-American laureate at that—and that position was affiliated with a place as daunting as the Library of Congress. Hayden had attained something that in my mind made him more than a mere mortal, leading an insecure young man from rural Mississippi to keep his distance.
Fast forward to May 1995. I was now working at the Library of Congress as its director of publishing. Part of my job was to work with the Poet Laureate, perhaps publishing a Laureate’s two annual lectures. No longer could I put the Poet Laureate up on a pedestal, as I had with Hayden. Neither could I be reluctant to speak with the Poet Laureate on a chance encounter in the halls of the Library of Congress. Yet the memory of my younger, insecure self lingered.
Somehow I wanted to make up for that missed opportunity, now that meeting with the Poet Laureate of the United States was an ordinary occurrence. That led to an idea: a book.
I would assemble an anthology of the work of the men and women who served as U.S. Poets Laureate.
It would be another 15 years and 10 laureates later before my collaborator Elizabeth Hun Schmidt and I could bring to completion the idea of an anthology of the work of the American Poets Laureate. But as any editor knows, the books that are worth doing are those for which you personally feel passion. For me, The Poets Laureate Anthology is that book, since my passion for poetry has been a lifetime burning. It also made me realize how fortunate I’d been as a U-M student to have access to not just one but three of the finest poets of my lifetime. The idea for the book was simple: a biography of each poet, their photograph, a quote that summed up their work, and a selection of work by the poet. For Robert Hayden, The Poets Laureate Anthology editor Elizabeth Hun Schmidt chose this quote:
There’s a tendency today—more than a tendency; it’s almost a conspiracy—to delimit poets, to restrict them to the political … I can’t imagine any poet worth his salt today not being aware of social evils … But I feel I have the right to deal with these matters in my own way … I know who I am, and pretty much what I want to say.
This fit Robert Hayden perfectly. While he did confront the issue of race in his work, he never wanted to let his race limit his artistic impression. And when I learned of the harsh circumstances of his upbringing—he lived with foster parents who were sometimes abusive—I realized why perhaps I rarely saw him smile.
To make up for my neglect of Hayden as a student, I insisted that my photo editor find a photograph of Robert Hayden smiling. This photo by Jill Krementz of Hayden outside the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress soon after his appointment fit the bill and, for me, assuaged years of guilt for my youthful silence.
“Build a house”
While Robert Hayden was a constant presence during my time at Michigan, Donald Hall’s spirit lived on in the English Department, even though he had already retreated to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to write full time three years prior to my arrival. Many in the English Department even spoke of him in the present tense; it was as if he had never left.
Though we never met until he became Poet Laureate, when we did finally meet, it was a reunion of sorts. What made Hall such a strong presence in the English department were his readings of poems he assigned in his “Introduction to Poetry” class, which a former student described to me as occasions when he would command an attentive silence from his audience.
However, Hall rarely did readings of his own work while he was at Michigan. I remembered that once I sat in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium with my teenage son for a reading Hall did with then-British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. After Hall finished reading, there was silence before the applause and my son whispered in my ear, “Wow!” At that moment I knew my son and I had experienced what my classmate had as an undergraduate some 30 years before, except this time Hall was reading his own poetry.
As we corresponded during the development of the anthology, I noted in an email message to Hall how I felt I remembered him teaching at Michigan in spite of the fact that he had left three years before I arrived. His response was simple and unadorned: “Yes, I left Ann Arbor for New Hampshire permanently at the end of the spring term in 1975. I loved my classes there—but I loved writing every day even more.”
He then recounted to me his poetry writing classes. “The classes in writing poetry mostly met in my living room at my house on South University. I would buy a case of beer, and students would put some change into a cup. The student-poets were informal, noisy, and helpful—to me and each other. It could be thrilling, as when I had several poets in my class who went on to publish books. Of course, the best I ever taught was Jane Kenyon.” Kenyon won the Hopwood Award and married Hall in 1972 after earning her MA.
Like his poems, even Donald Hall’s email messages speak to a reader with a sincere, understated authority. Hall loved teaching, but as every writer who teaches knows, energy one might use for writing is often consumed in the classroom. That is why his photo in the anthology is matched with a simple quote from his long poem “The One Day”: “Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house.” Hall built his house with words, and to build his house he had to write rather than teach. But Hall by all accounts was an incredible teacher, one who gained the attention and respect of his students. His “Introduction to Poetry” class attracted students who may have only been interested in poetry at the beginning of the semester. In the course of the term, Hall transformed students with only a fleeting interest in poetry into real lovers of poetry and the poetic form.
“A fish in the sand”
While Donald Hall held only a spiritual presence during my time in Ann Arbor, the only foreign-born citizen to named Poet Laureate (as well as the only Poet Laureate to have a Nobel Prize) was there physically and taught in the Slavic Studies Department. Joseph Brodsky came to the University of Michigan in 1972 as its poet-in-residence. His involuntary exile from the Soviet Union made Brodsky feel like one “who survives like a fish in the sand.” Brodsky arrived at the U-M from the Soviet Union at the age of 32, only months after being convicted of “social parasitism” for living on his poetry and then deported.
Professor of Russian Literature Carl Proffer, founder of Ardis Press and publisher of Brodsky’s work, was Brodsky’s tie to the U-M. Proffer happened to be visiting Brodsky in Leningrad in May 1972 when the Soviet Union issued him an exit visa to Israel. Although Brodsky did not want to leave Russia, Proffer assured him he would find him a position at Michigan. By September, the State Department has issued Brodsky a work permit and he was teaching at Michigan.
Hayden and Hall were firmly part of the tradition of American letters; Brodsky felt alienated from it. That alienation affected his time at Michigan, leading Brodsky to feel only a vague kinship with the English Department and making the Slavic Studies department his real home. As he told David Remnick, then of the Washington Post, “I belong to the Russian culture. I feel a part of it, its component, and no change of place can influence the final consequence of this. A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language.”
I had to be reminded that Brodsky was in Ann Arbor during my time there. An old friend even remembered pointing out Brodsky to me once as he walked with a commanding presence across the Diag.
What I believe links Brodsky to Hayden, as well as Hall, is not the University of Michigan, or the fact that they all served as Poets Laureate. For me, what places them on the same continuum is that they saw a connection between the poet and society, and shared the American belief, rooted in the Emersonian tradition, that poetry could change lives and lead us to a higher consciousness. And that is what each poet did in his work.
Robert Hayden did not want to be thought of primarily as a black writer, yet his poem “Frederick Douglas” raises the reader’s consciousness of the wrongs of racism simply by describing freedom as a beautiful, needful thing. Brodsky’s dissident background makes his poem “Once More by the Potomac” the best, brief commentary on how Americans take their freedom for granted (“here are We the People, each one a moral cripple”). And Donald Hall’s proclamation to “Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house” reminds readers of how domestic life permeates the human condition and requires constant care and tending.
Even though I may have been focused more on dead poets during my time at Michigan, the poets who were present then at Michigan still permeated my consciousness, haunting me both personally and professionally. These poets, their poetry, and the University of Michigan changed my life. The Poets Laureate Anthology is one way to repay them for what they shared and continue to share with me: the enduring presence of poetry and literature.
Brodsky once noted, “Language and, presumably, literature are things that are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization.” These poets’ work reminds us of the durability of language and literature. Their poetry endures, and will endure, across time, serving as a bridge between past and present.
Have you read or met any of U-M’s poets laureates? What poems or lines do you particularly love? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
- “Once More by the Potomac” from Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky, and included in The Poets Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, published by W. W. Norton and Company in association with the Library of Congress. Copyright © 2000 by the estate of Joseph Brodsky. Used here with the permission of Farrar, Straus &Giroux, LLC.
- “Frederick Douglass,” Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, and included in The Poets Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, published by W. W. Norton and Company in association with the Library of Congress. Used by Permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
- Excerpt of “Kill the Day” from White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems, 1946-2006, and included in The Poets Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, published by W. W. Norton and Company in association with the Library of Congress. Copyright © 2006 by Donald Hall. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.