Léonie Adams was a multi-award winning American poet whose life spanned most of the 20th century. In 1948 she was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She was the seventh holder of this honour and held the post for two years. Additionally she was a teacher of English at a number of different American colleges and she also worked in New York City for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an editorial capacity. Her poetry was of the lyrical persuasion and was written in a similar style to that seen during the Romantic and Metaphysical periods.
She was born Léonie Fuller Adams in December 1899 in the Brooklyn district of New York. Her parents imposed a strict regime on her including not allowing her to use the subway until she reached the age of 18, and only then when accompanied by her father. When eventually she escaped this suffocating home environment she attended Barnard College and shared a room there with Margaret Mead. She had begun to write poetry and got some of her work published while she was an undergraduate in 1925. Her first published volume of poems was called Those Not Elect.
Perhaps as a backlash to her restrictive upbringing she took off for Europe in 1928, her first destination being France. She joined the literary circles there, and later in London, and met such well known writers as Gertrude Stein. There was one unsavoury incident at this time when she received word from a man with whom she had a love affair in the United States. When told that he was thinking of getting married she pretended that she had been pregnant and had then suffered a miscarriage. Although it was later revealed that this was all fantasy the effect on her former lover was devastating. He suffered a nervous breakdown and, although he was a heavy drinker, it seems likely that Adams’s cruelty was a contributory factor.
On her return to the US she took up residence outside of New York City while lecturing on Victorian poetry to students at the city’s university. Romance once again came her way and she married a fellow teacher in 1933, the same year that she published This Measure. Two years later the newly married couple were part of the faculty of Bennington College. She went on to work at several different colleges, both teaching and mentoring up and coming young poets such as Louise Glück.
Adams won a number of awards for her poetry, including the Bollingen Prize and the
Shelley Memorial Award. She had always had strong religious and political views and these were revealed in a 1955 autobiography with the statement:
In describing her style of poetry she commented that she had been influenced by the Early Romantics and Elizabethan poetry, producing work sometimes metaphysical, sometimes romantic. An example is reproduced here – a poem called Apostate:
One critic described her poetry as having the characteristics of “meticulous craftsmanship”. Another said that although the poetry was slight and limited in scope it portrayed loveliness:
Léonie Adams died on the 27th June 1988, aged 88