After years of lying as spy, finding truth in poetry

Poet Edward Weismiller to speak in city today

April 10, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Edward Weismiller is pretty surely the only living American poet to have run a counterspy operation in World War II Europe.

"I ran the first captured agent," he says. "Once he was cleared for use [I] ran him back against the enemy."

He served in France with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. He's written a top secret history of double agents. And he was trained in the Ultra top secret decoding machine.

"Therefore," he says. "I was not allowed to get anywhere near where I could be captured. If I were captured, I had a cyanide capsule. I'm not sure I would have used it. But I had it."

He's spent most of the years since the war in the somewhat less lethal activities of teaching and writing poetry, first at Pomona College in Southern California and then at George Washington University in Washington, where he lives now, a very busy professor emeritus.

This morning, Weismiller, an engaging and erudite raconteur, will "tell stories and say poems" in an appearance at the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in downtown Baltimore.

He was a fairly widely published poet when the Office of Strategic Services recruited him out of Harvard, where he was a graduate student teaching freshman English.

He'd been a Rhodes Scholar when the war broke out and he had to come home. He had published his first book of poetry when he was at Cornell College in Iowa.

His collection, The Deer Come Down, was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 1936.

"I was - I am - the youngest poet ever to have won the award," he says.

He's now the oldest living Younger Poet. Yale published his latest book of poetry, Walking Toward the Sun, just a couple of years ago.

"They had a policy of never publishing a second book. Since they have a Yale Younger Poet every year, they'd be overwhelmed," he says.

"I think they thought with 66 years between the two books, I was not setting too much of a precedent."

Weismiller is 88 now and very nearly blind. He had the symptoms of glaucoma as long ago as 1950, and his sight has been failing nearly 30 years.

Academic work

John Milton, the 17th-century English poet who is the focus of Weismiller's major academic work, also became blind, probably because of glaucoma.

"I'm one of the editors of a Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton," he says. He's been working on it about 40 years.

"I'm the person who is writing about the technique of the poetry and what people thought they were doing when they wrote in the 16th and 17th centuries, how they used the language, what conventions they accepted and what was forced upon them, that sort of thing."

Weismiller has been writing poetry just about all his life. He recites a poem he wrote when he was 9: "The moon is a bright new penny/burning a hole in God's pocket." In high school, he rewrote the last act of Macbeth in iambic pentameter because he didn't like the ending.

"At one time I could talk in iambic pentameter," he says. "Once you get those rhythms in your head it doesn't take much to adjust, if you have a flexible vocabulary."

Weismiller was born in Green County, Wis., in a cheese factory. His father was a farmer and cheese maker. He was the survivor of a set of twins.

`Half a person'

"My twin brother died in three days, so I'm sort of half a person," he says. "I feel it - of course I feel it. It's just a kind of loneliness. It's something missing you keep looking for."

His mother died when he was 10, which was devastating to son and father. He lived then for a while with an older sister. And, despite some wobbly times, graduated from high school when he was 15.

Encouraged by a professor named Clyde "Toppy" Tull at Cornell College, he began sending his poems to literary magazines, like Prairie Schooner and Poetry. He had "quite a correspondence" with Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry. She'd chide him when his work became, in his words, "magniloquent," or overly lofty.

"That has to be stamped out of you," he says.

"The person who really stamped it out of me finally, when I was teaching freshman English at Harvard, was John Berryman. Superb poet. One of America's best poets. ... He would read my poetry and he would show me where I was tell ing lies."

Weismiller had learned in the OSS that he was a very good liar. Lying was the essence of his double-agentry.

After agentry

"When I came out of the military," he says, "I had this curious competition inside me. What a poet tries to do is tell the truth. And you know what a liar tries to do."

He could have stayed on with the CIA.

"I was one of their oldest and best operatives," he says. "But I simply couldn't do that."

Was it the calling of poetry? The "truth" of poetry?

"More complicated than that, even. The fact is it's very easy, once you've been writing a long time, to write beautiful stuff that in fact is sort of not true. It's fake. It's just pretty.

"What I had to do was to learn how to wrestle language to the ground to make it tell the truth."


What: Edward Weismiller, poet and professor

Where: Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 415 Park Ave.

When: Today, 10:30 a.m.

Call: 410-230-2424 (or e-mail: recept@lbph.lib.

Admission: Free

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.