poem index

A Tribute to Marie Bullock

Written by

Anthony Hecht
Contributor Page

Year

2009
"Of course, one is human enough to enjoy the praise; but the important thing is the art; and it is the poetry which has caused the devotion."

                          *
"I think it's a misconception that Americans do not care for poetry. We need merely to overcome our shyness. Most great civilizations have had their greatest poets at the height of their glory. There seems to me no reason why we should not hope for that in America also."

                          *
"If we are to believe Horace, poetry is 'the first instructor of mankind.' It is certainly imperishable. It outlasts steel and granite..."

                          *
"Old people speak of the past. But our love for poetry makes us look ahead to the young and new generations of poets arising. May their work, faced with challenges such as have never occurred in the history of man, be nurtured by sincerity, integrity, simplicity, courage and faith; and may we, their audience, help them all we possibly can."

                      —Marie Bullock (1911 - 1986)

Marie Bullock, who died on Christmas Day of 1986 at the age of seventy-five, was the Founder, and for more than fifty years the President, of the Academy of American Poets. She had been born Marie Leontine Graves of American parents in Paris, where she remained for her early schooling, including graduate work at the Sorbonne. But when she married and settled in New York at 22, she was astonished to discover how indifferent Americans were to American poetry, and to the financial crises that many poets face and not a few of them succumb to. The contrast of the fate of poets such as Poe, for example, and Vachel Lindsay, who committed suicide in 1931, must have been the more striking to her in specific contrast to the honor in which poets have been traditionally held in Europe. Only Lincoln’s funeral in this country elicited the sort of universal national grief that the French gave to Victor Hugo at his death, and almost immediately after his death, Paul Valéry had a Parisian street named after him. Indignant at this humiliating comparison, the young Mrs. Hugh Bullock founded the Academy in 1934, and with the advice of and help of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Joseph Auslander (a Columbia University faculty member and first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress), Ridgely Torrence (a friend of Robert Frost’s) and a few others, she drew up the plans, and started raising funds, to nurture the cause of poetry and the survival of individual poets.

Poetry had not been Marie Bullock’s only interest. After her Sorbonne studies, she had continued graduate work at Columbia as well as at the Julliard School of Music, and in the early 1950’s at the Hayden Planetarium she became a qualified teacher of astronomy, a field in which she shared an interest with Frost. But poetry was the central focus of her energy and generosity, and she began by raising the capital to fund an annual $5,000 Fellowship. And she established a remarkable Board of Chancellors to consult with her in the administration of the Academy. That first Board was composed of: Donald Adams, William Rose Benet, Witter Bynner, Henry S. Canby, Mary Colum, Max Eastman, Frank P. Graham, Robert M. Hutchins, Robinson Jeffers, Archibald MacLeish, E.O. Matthiessen, and William Allen Neilson (long-time President of Smith College and Shakespeare scholar). It was decided that there should be a constant infusion of new blood and perspectives on the Board, so that each year one member would be retired, and replaced by an outsider chosen by the remaining members, a policy that continues to this day.

The Academy Fellowship was the first award of its kind to be offered in the United States, and in 1969 the stipend was raised to $10,000. Thus far, fifty-one Fellowships, involving a total of $375,000, have been awarded, and they have gone to the likes of Edgar Lee Masters, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, Leonie Adams, John Crowe Ransom, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, John Berryman, James Wright, Mona Van Duyn, W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, May Swenson, and Amy Clampitt, among a fairly glittering roster of names.

But the Fellowships are only the beginning of what the Academy does to foster poetry in this country. It has established prizes for poetry-writing in virtually all the major colleges and universities throughout the country. It set up “poetry circuits,” regional routings along which established poets could barnstorm from campus to campus. It arranged for conducted tours of the homes and neighborhoods of great American poets of the past. It lobbied for the portraits of our poets that have appeared on postage stamps (formerly the exclusive preserve of statesmen). It administrated the Peter I. B. Lavan Awards to Younger Poets, set up the Lamont Poetry Selection series—initially for a first book of poems, later for second books. It established the Walt Whitman Award, the Landon Award for the translation of poetry, and has administered the dispersal of other major awards over the years. From the general public’s point of view, however, the Academy may perhaps be principally credited with the establishment of poetry readings as a regular feature of American cultural life. For such services, not only poets, but readers as well, have cause to be grateful to Mrs. Bullock’s accomplishments.

These accomplishments won her some very distinguished awards of her own, and the cordial acquaintance of virtually every important poet of this century, both Americans and those who have visited our land. So well was she known as the principal guardian of the flame through the institution of the Academy that when the Soviet poet, Joseph Brodsky, was exiled, and arrived possessionless and penniless at the Austrian home of W.H. Auden, funds were immediately secured for him by Auden through the Academy, and they were enough to take him first to England and then to his first self-sustaining job in this country at the University of Michigan.

It is impossible to convey the unflagging buoyancy and enthusiasm with which Marie Bullock met every challenge, every potential donor, every poet whether well known or obscure, during the long course of her brilliantly successful crusade in poetry’s behalf. She was a gallant, devoted and generous champion of a cause that had few champions before her, and none so successful. American poets and their readers are all in her debt.