Louis Untermeyer: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Louis Untermeyer established himself as a poet whose work is frequently anthologized, bringing poetry to students around the globe. In this lesson we will look at the range of his writing and its impact.

Louis Untermeyer
Louis Untermeyer

A Poet is Born

He fell in love with language and stories at a very young age. For Louis Untermeyer, poetry and writing became a way of life. In his early adulthood he had to work a traditional job to pay the bills, but once his first collection of poems sold, he was off and running and didn't look back.

Little Rich Boy

Louis Untermeyer was born in New York City in 1885 and his family made their money in the jewelry business. He found a love for literature early in life when his mother would read bedtime stories to him. Then he would take as many parts of stories as he could recall and create his own stories to tell his brother to help him fall asleep.

Louis had a bit of a stubborn streak in him; he left high school at 15 years old. He realized that because of his poor grades in math, he would not be accepted at Columbia, so went to work with his family in the jewelry business. At 18 he started writing poems and composing music.

His first piece of poetry was published with no pay, but it didn't take long before his work was in publications like The Forum. In 1911, his first volume of poetry, First Love, was published, and by 1923 he had received enough acclaim and financial reward to be able to leave the family business.

Louis Untermeyer gained success with his poetry anthologies, which included a selection of poets and enough writing styles to appeal to many people. The Singing World published in 1923, put together a wide range of poets who were loved by children. It was the first of its kind and very well received.

Changes Happen

New York grew tiresome, so he purchased a 160-acre farm, Stony Water, in the Adirondacks. He continued to write and lecture, but he also worked his land. He saw himself as a gentleman farmer. He raised pigs and cows, he tapped maples for syrup, and he grew apples. While he enjoyed the farm, he realized it was a labor of love, not one that would bring financial gain.

When World War II broke out, Untemeyer returned to the city to do his part. He offered his services to the Office of War Information, where he worked with Howard Fast; a novelist and television writer, Santha Rama Rau; a journalist who helped readers understand India, and John Houseman, a film director. When he was the director of the Armed Services Editions, he was able to bring hundreds of millions of books to American servicemen.

Being involved again made Louis want to continue to work in salaried positions. He took a job at Decca Records, where he worked to sell recordings of plays and poetry. He was one of the first panelists on What's My Line? It was, however, the 1950's, and his past came under scrutiny by the McCarthy witch hunters. Untermeyer was blacklisted for his political views and for his anti-war editorials in the magazine, The Masses. Louis was so ashamed by the attention levied at him that he left the show and withdrew from public life.

The Writer Soars in Isolation

Untermeyer sequestered himself in Connecticut for the next ten years, and during this time he met playwright, Arthur Miller, well known for Death of a Salesman. In 1961, all was forgiven when he was chosen as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In the next two years, he traveled to Japan and India at the request of the State Department serving as a literary ambassador.

He was a master anthologist, essayist, and fiction writer with titles such as Modern American Poetry, The New Adam, and The Pursuit of Poetry to his credit.

Robert Frost played a crucial role in Untermeyer's writing life. His book, The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer contained letters from over forty years of communication with an American favorite.

The opening stanza of 'Rainbow's End' shows the reader his voice, and the visual nature of his poetry:

Do you remember at the rainbow's end

Those flowers trampled by the hurrying rain,

Hanging their heads, knowing they would not spend

Their prodigal colors again?

We can easily see the flowers beaten down by the rain, never to stand tall again; we are sad at their passing.

In his poem 'Summer Storm', the last four lines of the last stanza show the reader the elegance of his prose:

In the sweet-smelling valley of her breast,

And each was huddled in each other's love;

Or so it seemed….

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