LOA Launches American Poets Project

Ava Wilder

To coincide with National Poetry Month, the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of American classics, will launch the American Poets Project, a new series of books devoted to individual poets and anthologies exploring particular themes, genres, and eras. Edited by widely respected authors, the series will showcase the work of well-known poets along with those whose work has been neglected or whose popularity and reputations may be in decline, says Max Rudin, the Library of America's publisher.

"We have been thinking for a while about expanding our publishing to serve the areas of American letters that our main series can't," says Rudin. The main series was launched in 1982 and is dedicated to preserving the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's best and most significant writing. The work of most writers in the series fills a 900-page volume. "We thought that there were many American poets whose work we wanted to publish that weren't appropriate for that format, and we thought that a new series was the best way to do it."

The inaugural volumes of the American Poets Project will be available April 1 and will feature the work of Walt Whitman, edited by Harold Bloom; Edna St.Vincent Millay, edited by J.D. McClatchy; Karl Shapiro, edited by John Updike; and an anthology of World War II poetry, edited by Harvey Shapiro. Designed by Chip Kidd and distributed by Penguin Putnam, each book will include an introduction by its editor describing the collection's guiding philosophy as well as historical, social, political, and biographical information about the featured poet or poets. The initial print run for these volumes will be 6,000 to 10,000.

While some editors were approached with a subject for the series, others came to the series with poets in mind. Updike, for example, suggested featuring Karl Shapiro, a writer whose work he has long admired. "One of the things we want to do in the future is to find pairings like that, to find a literary figure who has a passion for a particular American poet," says Rudin.

The Library of America approached Harvey Shapiro—a World War II poet himself and a friend of many war poets—with the idea of editing Poets of World War II, and Shapiro agreed. "The American poets of the Second World War," he says, "left us a body of work that is yet to be recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence." The book contains verse by 62 poets, 40 of whom served in the military. "I allowed more space to them [poets who were also soldiers]," he says. "I wanted to get as close as I could to the sights and sounds of war." The anthology includes work by Howard Nemerov, George Oppen, Louis Simpson, and Richard Eberhart, among others.

McClatchy says he chose Millay for his subject because he has been interested in her work and fascinated by her reputation for years. "I tried to highlight a side of her which I find to be intellectual, surprising, and daring," says McClatchy, who also serves as an adviser to the series. "The whole point of this series is the interplay between the editor and the subject of the volume."

A Web site for the series will be launched in April. Visitors will be able to find information about the books, scheduled readings, and a list of upcoming titles at www.americanpoetsproject.org. Readings to promote the new series will take place during April from coast to coast. Harvey Shapiro, along with some of the poets featured in the World War II anthology, will read on April 12 at the public library in Southampton, New York, and on April 26 at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Various poets will read from the Whitman collection during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 26 and 27.

The Library of America aims to publish three books in the series every six months. The offering for the fall will include poetry by Yvor Winters, edited by Thom Gunn, and Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Richard Wilbur. As for future editions, Rudin says he has a long list of authors he wants to enlist as editors. "It is a very eclectic list—people whose taste we trust and whose writing we love."

Ava Wilder studies journalism and creative writing at the City University of New York's Baruch College.