American Poets Corner
Visitors come to the Cathedral’s American Poets Corner, located in the Arts Bay on the north side of the nave, curious to see who’s honored, to admire the stones, to pay homage. Poets, fiction writers, essayists, and dramatists: the American Poets Corner memorializes the literature of our nation in all its surprise, wit and beauty. The Cathedral's Poets Corner is modeled on the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, and in fact we have two poets in common: T. S. Eliot, an American who became a British citizen, and W. H. Auden, an Englishman who took American citizenship. (Longfellow is the only other American poet memorialized at the Abbey.) No writers are entombed within the Cathedral, as is sometimes the case at Westminster Abbey; rather, stone tablets are carved with names, dates, and a line from each writer’s work.
History & How It Works
In 1983, The Reverend William D. Eddy, Rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Tarrytown, sought to have Tarrytown native Washington Irving memorialized at Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Unsuccessful, he approached prominent American institutions with the idea of creating an American Poets Corner. At the Cathedral, Reverend Eddy’s idea was met with enthusiasm by The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, who invited Daniel Haberman to be the first Poet-in-Residence. A system of Electors, chosen by the Poet-in-Residence to consult with him on the selection of inductees, was put in place and continues today with some modifications.
The first inductees were Walt Whitman, Washington Irving and Emily Dickinson: an iconic 19th century trio who in their singular ways embodied the emerging American character. Walt Whitman’s expansiveness, exuberance and democratic love of man and nature; Emily Dickinson’s ecstatic and solitary genius; and Washington Irving’s brilliant rendering of the tall tales, folklore and recent history gathered in his many trips around the country define types recognizable in American literary culture today.
Early Poets Corner Electors included Eudora Welty, William Jay Smith, Joseph Brodsky, Richard Wilbur, John Hollander and Robert Penn Warren, who read from Walt Whitman at the inaugural ceremony on May 7, 1984. Initially, two writers were inducted each year, and there were a number of events related to the induction into the Poets Corner. Since 2000, one writer has been inducted each year.
The Poets Corner and Cathedral poetry events have become an integral part of the literary landscape in New York. The Poets Corner, beloved by visitors, has earned respect for its choices of inductees, and for the high quality of its Electors and Poets-in-Residence, which include 17 U.S. Poet Laureates and winners of every literary prize an American writer can aspire to, including the Nobel.
How It Works
The Cathedral Poet-in-Residence, appointed by the Dean, serves for a term of five years. The poet in turn appoints the Electors, for staggered terms, keeping in mind the original guidelines, which called for geographical and genre diversity. Every spring, the Poet-in-Residence invites each Elector to nominate a writer deceased for at least 25 years. The Electors and Poet-in-Residence discuss candidates and engage in balloting until consensus is reached. The Poet-in-Residence, in consultation with the Electors, chooses the line to be engraved on the stone.
Formal induction into the Poets Corner takes place on a Sunday in early November during Evensong. Within a few days of the induction, the Cathedral often hosts an evening of readings and conversation with scholars, poets, and friends and families (if possible) of the honoree. The Poet-in-Residence’s duties also include consulting on other poetry activities at the Cathedral.
The Inferno of Dante Alighieri: A Reading
The Inferno, the opening section of Dante Alighieri's medieval masterpiece the Divine Comedy, begins on the evening of the Maundy Thursday Vigil. The annual reading of selections from the Inferno brings listeners and participants into the "dark woods" of Dante's haunting vision. This dramatic literary event takes place in the Crossing of the Cathedral, with selected Cantos read by honored guests, distinguished poets, eminent translators, visiting scholars, and Inferno reading regulars.
The 2020 reading was hosted online. You can watch the full video below.
The Induction Ceremony
Authors inducted into the American Poets Corner are celebrated with a traditional Choral Evensong service and the unveiling of the author's plaque on the second Sunday in November. At each annual induction, the Cathedral's Poet-in-Residence, joined by fellow writers and critics and members of the public, pays tribute to the latest inductee to the Cathedral's highest literary honor.
Poets Corner Inductees
MARIE HOWE is the author of Magdalene (W. W. Norton, 2017), which was long-listed for the National Book Award; The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W. W. Norton, 2009), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; What the Living Do (W. W. Norton, 1998); and The Good Thief (Persea Books, 1988), which was selected by Margaret Atwood for the 1987 National Poetry Series. The poet Stanley Kunitz called her poetry "luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life." He selected her for a Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1988. Howe is the recipient of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Her other awards include grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2018, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
MARILYN NELSON is the author of 12 books of poetry, most recently, Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (Louisiana State University Press) and of numerous translations and children’s books, including Ostrich and Lark, Boyds Mills Press (2012). Nelson collaborated with the San artists of Botswana on Ostrich and Lark, and the proceeds will go towards supporting and training San people in the Kalahari. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, and the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997) was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the 1997 National Book Award, and the PEN Winship Award; The Homeplace (1990) won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award. Nelson twice won the Boston Globe/Hornbook Award, and in May 2012 was the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s highest award, The Frost Medal, for “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.” Nelson is also the former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut.
CHARLES MARTIN is the author of 5 books of poetry, most recently Signs & Wonders, The Johns Hopkins University Press (2011), as well as two books of translation. He is currently working, with Gavin Flood of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, on a collaborative translation of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the recipient of a Literature award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Bess Hokin Award from Poetry, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the Merrill Ingram Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Three of his books have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, including Steal the Bacon(1987), What the Darkness Proposes (1996), and Starting from Sleep: New and Selected Poems (2002), which was also a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Award. Martin is a noted translator of Latin poetry; his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2004) won the Harold Morton
Landon Award from the Academy of American Poets.
MOLLY PEACOCK is the author of 6 books of poetry, including The Second Blush (2008) and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems (2002), a memoir and three works of non-fiction. Her most recent book is The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, Bloomsbury (2011), chosen by The Economist as a 2011 Book of the Year. She has won grants and fellowships from the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the Danforth Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Ms. Peacock has twice served as President of The Poetry Society of America (1989–1994 and 1998–1999), and co-created the original "Poetry in Motion" posters on the New York City buses and subways. This initiative also resulted in the book Poetry in Motion: One Hundred Poems from the Subways and Buses (1996). She is currently working on AlphabeTique: the Lives of the Letters, an alphabet book for adults of all ages, and The Secret Gardeners, nonfiction about flower artists.
DANIEL HOFFMAN (1923-2013) is the author of 13 books of poetry. Hoffman’s final book was Next to Last Words, Louisiana State University Press (2013), a collection of poems published the month of his death. He has also written seven books of criticism and a memoir. Hoffman (U.S. Poet Laureate 1973-1974) has received the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry from The Sewanee Review; the Hazlett Memorial Award; the Memorial Medal of the Maygar P.E.N. for his translations of contemporary Hungarian poetry; grants and fellowships from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
WILLIAM JAY SMITH (U.S Poet Laureate 1968-1970) is the author of 13 books of poetry, most recently Words by the Water, The Johns Hopkins University Press (2008), a memoir, a book of criticism, and numerous children’s books and translations. His book My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams was published in February 2012 by University Press of Mississippi. Smith has been a member of The Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice-president for literature. Smith has won awards from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the Hungarian government.
DANIEL HABERMAN (1933-1991) is the author of The Lug of Days to Come: New and Selected Poems and Translations, John Daniel and Company Books (1996) and The Furtive Wall (1982) and Poems (1977), both published by Art Direction. His translation of the Erinna fragment appears in the Norton Book of Classical Literature and also in The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, Norton.
Poets Corner Electors
The Electors, appointed by the Poet-in-Residence, serve staggered terms, and in discussion with the Poet-in-Residence work to come to a consensus on each year’s inductee.