Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mr. Untermeyer & His Golden Treasury of Poetry

The Golden Treasury of Poetry (Selected and with Commentary by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated, beautifully, by Joan Walsh Anglund) was a gift for my birthday. It was a book I dipped into again and again as a child, and still do as an adult.

Louis Untermeyer was always a mystery to me, but I like the poems he chose. Now through the miracle of Google, I know who he was. Editor, anthologist, humorist, subversive, game-show panelist, poetry guy, Louis Untermeyer's name was bandied about by the House on Un-American Activities committee in the early 1950s.

Once he was blacklisted, Louis lost his job on What's My Line. He'd held the post for only a year or so. Bad news for Louis was ultimately good news for Bennett Cerf. Cerf's gig lasted more than fifteen years. According to Louis's friend, the playwright Arthur Miller, Louis stayed in his house for a year after being blacklisted.

Luckily McCarthy didn't stop Louis. In his fifty years in the writing field, he wrote, edited, anthologized, and translated over one hundred books, including his own poetry.

Including the book that is still one of my all-time favorites. Even as a kid, I got a kick out of the comments that accompany many of the poems in The Treasury.

“In the beginning, there must have been elves. The young world seems to have been full of pixies and fairies, goblins and wizards.”

I didn't know then I was reading poems that had been written for adults. Years later I encountered some of them, realizing with pride that Untermeyer trusted me with not only children's poetry, but 'adult' poetry as well.

Among my favorites: I Meant To Do My Work Today by Richard LaGalienne; Catalog by Rosalie Moore (Cats sleep fat and walk thin); The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, An Introduction to Dogs by Ogden Nash, and Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish.

Louis nails his commentary on Bishop's writing just as Bishop nailed that fish with her short lines, “startling us by their precision”.

I tip my hat to Louis Untermeyer today, and leave you with a few lines from The Fish.

He hung a grunting weight
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills
fresh and crisp with blood
that can cut so badly --

Go here to read and marvel at Bishop's beautiful fish story.

Note from Diane: Today's Poetry Round-Up is at Becky's Book Reviews.

1 comment:


Nice stroll down memory lane for me. I always used to watch "What's My Line" when I was a kid. I remember two of the women panelists, Kitty Carlisle and Dorthy Kilgallen. It was nice to see clever women hold their own with men back in the olden days! Carlisle died only last year, she was 96. --Diane