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Publishing poetry at 87

  Mary Boone  

As a teenager, Edward Weismiller ’38 rewrote the fifth act of Macbeth in perfect pentameter because he didn’t like the play’s outcome.

“Unfortunately, in those early years, I hadn’t experienced anything,” he says, “so I didn’t have anything to write about.” Now, at age 87, Weismiller has enough experiences to fill many lifetimes and—lucky for poetry lovers—several volumes of verse.

His mother died when he was 10. He and his invalid father moved fromWisconsin to Vermont to care for a family farm when he was just 17. As a Cornell student in 1936, he became the youngest poet to win the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. He was a Rhodes Scholar and holds advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford. He served as a World War II Marine officer on detached service with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and became the first American to run a captured agent back against th e enemy. He wrote the espionage novel, The Serpent Sleeping, and taught college level poetry for 30 years.

Yale University Press this year reintroduced Weismiller—now the oldest living Younger Poet—with the publication of his latest book of poetry, Walking Toward the Sun.

“Yale doesn’t usually publish later books by Yale Series poets, but they decided since my first one was published in 1936, this wasn’t a precedent others would be calling them on,” jests Weismiller.

His previous poetry collections are The Deer Come Down (1936), The Faultless Shore (1946), and The Branch of Fire (1980). His spy novel was published in 1962 by Putnam’s and was republished in 1998 by British publisher Frank Cass in the series Classics of Espionage.

Poet William Stafford once called Weismiller “a fastidious craftsman … often powerfully colloquial, in ways that give a controlled shock, this against the scatter shock of a lot of modern poems.”

Now virtually blind, Weismiller continues to work several days a week on a project begun 40 years ago. He is editor for prosody of A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton and published scholarly essays in Volumes 2 and 4 of that collection. Publishing of the six book project was suspended in the 1980s with just three books completed; Weismiller signed on again when the Milton Society reopened the project a few years ago. With a helper’s assistance, he’s now writing line by line analyses of versifications of Milton’s minor poems.

Weismiller credits professor Clyde “Toppy” Tull with expanding his range of possibilities. Tull advised and assisted him in sending poems to magazines, which eagerly accepted them. After his sophomore year, Tull urged him to send a collection of poems to the Yale competition.

Weismiller says his love affair with Milton’s verse began at Cornell, when he took a class from English professor Howard Lane. “Lane was a magical teacher,” says Weismiller, recalling details of the class like it was yesterday. “There were 25 to 30 students in the room and no one at the front of the room. Then, the door opened and he walked out of his office, sat down, and started reading from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“The beauty of the piece and his profound understanding of it came through in his reading,” he says. “Taking that class changed my life. I’ve been a Miltonist from that day on.”

Weismiller taught at Pomona College from 1950 to 1967 and at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., from 1968 to 1980. In 2001, he received the Robert Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Study of Metrics and Versification. Earlier this year, he won the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award for excellence in poetry.

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