Poets, Poetics, and Politics

America's Literary Community Viewed from the Letters of Rolfe Humpries, 1910-1969

Richard Gillman and Michael Paul Novak

Rolfe Humphries (18941969), in addition to being an outstanding poet, left an impressive trail as a translator, teacher, critic, and editor. But, as Richard Gillman maintains in his introduction, poetry was the driving force behind these other special skills and interests. Humphries was, Gillman writes, an example of "the total poet. . . . If ever there were poets who did in fact breathe their art, he was one of them."

These letters for the first time illumine Humphries and his achievements. We see him as the mentor to younger poets, including Theodore Roethke, providing rare glimpses of poetics and the creative process; the teacher so charmed by horseracing he sometimes "put an exam on the blackboard . . . and then bugged out for the track"; the "literary terrorist" whose criticism Robert Frost never forgot and probably never forgave him for; the translator whose Aeneid prompted W.H. Auden to call it "a service for which no public reward could be too great"; the author of an introduction to Ezra Pound's poems who defied Pound's demand that a reference to his anti-Semitism be deleted. And so on and on, in all of Humphries' surprising variety and unfailing candor.

“Rolfe Humphries was an American original who deserves to be better known. He was a vital presence in the life of American poetry from the early 1920s until his death, and an active player in the literary and political battles of the 30s. . . . [These letters reveal] a man whose warmth, kindness, robust irreverence, deep love of his art, and courage in living give us the impression of a human wholeness so often lacking in his better-known peers.”

New York Times Book Review

“Candid, argumentative. These high-energy letters illuminate Humphries’ influence on Roethke.”

Publishers Weekly
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Active in America's literary community, Humphries was a friend of many poets and writers, including Louise Bogan, Edmund Wilson, and Roethke. This volume takes on added meaning by completing the published account of the relationships of these four as already told by Roethke, Bogan, and, to a lesser extent, Wilson.

Poets, Poetics, and Politics is set in a period that opened just two years before the birth of Harriet Monroe's Poetry; when it closed, most of the twentieth century's literary giants had died. Also in this time, many writers, Humphries included, dreamed the dreams of communism; his letters on this subject are both informative and absorbing.

About the Author

Both editors of Poets, Poetics, and Politics knew Humphries personally: Richard Gillman, as a friend for the last decade of Humphries’ life; Michael Novak, as a student at the last poetry workshop he taught in 1967. Gillman, a Maine-based writer, is the recipient of three Yaddo fellowships and the author of two books of poetry, Too Much Alone and Lunch at Carcassonne. He has written essays for the New York Times Book Review. Michael Novak, the author of three poetry volumes, The Leavenworth Poems, Sailing by the Whirlpool, and A Story to Tell, is associate professor at Saint Mary College in Leavenworth, Kansas. Ruth Limmer is the editor of What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920–1970.