After America’s golden era of “little magazines” in the first half of the century, when names like Harriet Monroe and Philip Rahv resonated with almost the same mystique as those of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, and anthologists like Oscar Williams and Louis Untermeyer helped shape the public cultural consciousness, American letters entered a time in which literary magazines came to proceed from the consciousness of semi-anonymous boards, or to represent schools or styles rather than the powerful individual voice of a great and literate editor. Theodore Weiss’s Quarterly Review of Literature stands out as an exception. Weiss made a significant place for himself in American poetry as a master of long form, narrative poetry, and as a blender of classical consciousness and vernacular American voice. But the Quarterly Review, which he and his wife, Renée Karol Weiss, founded and edited for nearly 60 years, may be the achievement for which he is most remembered.
Weiss was born 16 December 1916, in Reading, Pennsylvania, in, he notes for an autobiographical essay (Contemporary Authors 189, p. 421), “that supposedly most lucky of things, a caul,” a protective cushion created by amniotic membrane—a detail which came to excite Weiss when he read that Byron had been born in the same way. His father was a businessman and man of action who named his son after Theodore Roosevelt. Weiss traces his own literary bent to his maternal grandfather, a Polish immigrant pedlar, socialist and rabbinical scholar.
He graduated from Muhlenberg College in 1938, and received his M.A. from Columbia University in 1940. He married Renée Karol in 1941. His early teaching career included stops at the Universities of Maryland and North Carolina, and Yale University. In 1946, he came to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he was professor of English for twenty years. In 1966 he came to Princeton University, where he would spend the rest of his academic life. He was first brought in as a poet in residence, then appointed professor of English and creative writing in 1968. In 1977, he was named the William and Anne S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature, the position which he held until his retirement in 1987. His awards include the Wallace Stevens Award (1956) “House of Fire,” the Brandeis Creative Arts Award in Poetry (1977), the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award (1988-89), and, appropriately, the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award (1997). He has been a fellow of the Guggenheim, Ford and Ingram Merrill foundations, and the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities. He read at the White House (1980), and was the subject of two documentary films, Living Poetry: A Year in the Life of a Poem and Living Poetry 2: Yes, With Lemon, by Harvey Edwards. The first film tracks Weiss from initial inspiration through the completion of a poem, throughout the year and filmed the creation and evolution of his poem, "Fractions." The second includes revisions to, and a discussion of, the poem.
Weiss’s first collection, The Catch, was published in 1951; his first book-length poem, Outlanders, came out in 1960. Another long poem, Gunsight (1962), became his best-known work. Begun in the early 1940s as a short poem about a wounded soldier, it grew over the years to become a stunning meditation on war and suffering, which centers on the interior monolog of the soldier undergoing surgery, but reaches out to include a multitude of viewpoints, denoted by typographic changes, incorporating both created characters and the meditative persona of the poet. The sensual immediacy of youth and the unsentimental realism of guns intertwine as the voices intertwine, from “Grab the jug./ A couple more steps up the hill, and, there,/ you’re out of it. The wine, the babes, that’s/ the spring to dive into” to “…the gun-struck thing I am./ Admire sores, black gaping gums, these sockets/ filled with nothing.”
Subsequent books, including The Medium (1965), the collections The World Before Us: Poems, 1950-1970 (1970), Views and Spectacles: Selected Poems (1978) and Fireweeds (1976) found Weiss working in the shorter forms more typical of his era. These poems often echo the fascination of Outlanders with icons of American individuality like Henry David Thoreau and Albert Pinkham Ryder. “Simples of the Moon” lauds an unsuppressable will like that of “Ryder (the thin caul/ of a wide-eyed moon between you/ and the city, and a field, going/ greenly on, its music abysmal…” Hayden Carruth, reviewing The World Before Us, found himself cast back into an era, the time of his youth, when language mattered and poets used words to capture precise nuances of emotion.
Weiss returned to the long form again in Recoveries (1982), in which an art restorer engages in a colloquy with the subjects of the fresco he is restoring. He would publish three more books of shorter poems and a Selected Poems (1995) before his death. He also published several collections of essays.
The Weisses founded Quarterly Review of Literature in 1943. The magazine quickly became,and remained, one of the most influential in its field, and with the six-decade stewardship of the Weisses, a voice of consistent and high-level taste. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, literary journals careened between the Scylla of blandness-by-committee and the Charybdis of cronyism. Some, like Encounter and Partisan Review, were done in by the seductions of the Establishment (specifically the CIA); as a result, others were so fearful of Establishment taint that they splintered themselves into obscurity. By contrast, as Princeton colleague Edmund Keeley described Weiss as critic with a keen eye and ear for what mattered in poetry, “absolutely honest in his judgment of poetic talent" (obituary, ). In addition to being an important outlet for the later work of Stevens and Williams (including segments of Paterson in progress, QRL published early poems by James Merrill, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, James Dickey, W.S. Merwin and others.