He co-founded the Library of America, and served as chairman of its board. He was the Marius Bewley Professor of American and English Literature at Rutgers University. He was also the editor of Raritan, a literary quarterly, and an editor of Partisan Review.
In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
Mr. Poirier (pronounced to rhyme with “warrior”) was an old-fashioned man of letters — a writer, an editor, a publisher, a teacher — with a wide range of knowledge and interests. He was a busy reviewer for publications from The New York Review of Books to The London Review of Books, and his reviews could sting.
His own works were ambitious and forward-looking and idiosyncratic, addressing the teaching profession, the notion of style in American literature and the relationship between high and low culture. He wrote about Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, but also George Balanchine and Bette Midler. He wrote admiringly of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, Norman Mailer and the Beatles, finding in all of them a motivating sense of performance that made their otherwise disparate work comparably brilliant.
Mr. Poirier, who was a longtime professor of English at Rutgers, founded Raritan, an influential literary journal based there, in 1981. The magazine was an attempt — successful, by most standards — to engage both academics and non-academics “in a conversation about literature and culture,” in the description of T. Jackson Lears, who took over as editor of Raritan in 2002.
“He really believed that literature was something that could be analyzed and criticized in ordinary language,” Mr. Lears said in a telephone interview Monday. “He believed you could be playful and rigorous. And he thought that the academy had cut off criticism from a lot of ordinary readers.”
Mr. Poirier’s other grand project was Library of America, which he helped found in 1979 as a nonprofit publishing house that would champion the homegrown literature of the United States and pull together the collected works of writers — mostly writers of classics — whose work was previously uncollected. The company has nearly 200 volumes in print, including not only collected works by writers like Melville and Henry James, but also collections of journalism about World War II, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
“The idea of supporting our own, appreciating our own literature, that was important to him,” Cheryl Hurley, president of Library of America, said of Mr. Poirier. “It was his taste, his vision, that shepherded this organization.”
William Richard Poirier was born in Gloucester, Mass., on Sept. 9, 1925, into a poor “totally non-literary family,” he recalled in an interview with the Rutgers literary magazine Scriblerus. His father was a fisherman. A high school English teacher fostered his interest in reading. After high school, he joined the Army and served in Europe during World War II. Afterwards, on the G.I. bill, he went to Amherst, where Frost was an influential presence, giving readings each semester and talking about poetry to English majors. He subsequently earned an M.A. at Yale, spent time at Cambridge on a Fulbright fellowship and was awarded a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1960.
Before founding Raritan, Mr. Poirier was an editor of Partisan Review, and he also edited anthologies, including several editions of “The O. Henry Prize Stories,” the annual collection of the best contemporary short stories; and a two-volume compilation, “American Literature.”
Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing by Richard Poirier
Paperback: 380 pages
Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1 edition (April 1, 1990)
Amazon: Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing
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