A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway

Edwin Arlington Robinson earned his place in the literary canon with early 20th century poems like “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.”

He was awarded three Pulitzers in the 1920s, and his verse, themed around loss and failure, is a staple of American poetry anthologies.

But before this, Robinson was a broke downtown poet so desperate for money, he took a job in the New York City subway—and he was dubbed “the poet in the subway” once recognition came his way later in life.

It wasn’t the kind of life Robinson seemed destined to live. Born in 1869 in Gardiner, Maine, to a wealthy family that discouraged his literary ambition, he attended Harvard (below photo, at age 19) and had some early success self-publishing his poetry.

Then in the 1890s, a recession claimed his family’s fortune. His parents and a brother died, and his brother’s wife, who Robinson was in love with, rejected him.

So Robinson left Maine and relocated to New York City, dedicating himself solely to writing poetry. He lived for some time in Greenwich Village at the Judson Hotel (above ad, 1905)—today’s Judson Hall, part of NYU, according to nycatelier.com.

In New York, “he lived in dire poverty and became alcoholic,” states a biography by the chairman of the Gardiner Library Association. “He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.”

One of those odd jobs was in the subway. One source says Robinson was a “time checker” working with a construction crew, Americanpoems.com has it that he inspected loads of shale during the building of the subway system, which opened in 1904. (Below, subway construction at Christopher Street and West Fourth)

Finding time to write was a struggle, especially for a poet who described himself as “doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me,” according to the Gardiner Library Association biography. (Subway excavation, below, at Park Avenue and 42nd Street)

Robinson’s days toiling in the subway would come to an end—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s son Kermit.

“Kermit Roosevelt had studied some of [Robinson’s] poems at Groton and had been transfixed by their chilly beauty,” wrote Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex.

“The President had read them too, at his son’s urging, and agreed that Robinson had ‘the real spirit of poetry in him.'” (Above: Kermit Roosevelt with his dad and brothers, second from left)

Kermit discovered that Robinson was in dire poverty and struggling to support himself with his subway job. So the President, “in strict secrecy waiving all civil-service rules, had offered Robinson jobs in the immigration service or the New York Customs House, which latter the poet accepted.”

[Robinson was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support himself]

“A tacit condition of employment was that, in exchange for his desk and $2,000 a year, he should work ‘with a view toward helping American letters,’ rather than the receipts of the U.S. Treasury.”

Roosevelt, a fanatical reader, even wrote a positive review of Robinson’s ‘Children of the Night,’ the volume Kermit had given him (above left). “A poet can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory,” TR once said.

With a steady source of money, Robinson could devote himself more to his largely solitary life of writing poetry. He died of cancer at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1935.

[Top image: Lila Cabot Perry, 1918; second image: New-York Tribune; third image: wikiwand; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: Corbis; seventh image: bookedupac.com; eighth image: Wikipedia]

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10 Responses to “A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway”

  1. VirginiaB Says:

    Thanks so much for this. I remember Edward Arlington Robinson well from my own high school anthology, including both the poems you mention. I wonder if he is still in HS anthologies…. Thanks for sharing these interesting biographical notes, which I never knew. Roosevelt was truly a man of many parts–amazing. I’m glad he bent the rules in this case.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Agree about Roosevelt, this really added another dimension to him, in my opinion. He was a remarkable man. I also wondered if EA Robinson is still read by high schoolers. I recall reading him as a teenager and his poems deeply affected me.

  2. kenny Says:

    We read the Richard Cory poem in high school. It had a message for the ‘have nots’ who envied the ‘haves’. The Simon and Garfunkel version should be the theme song to TMZ and other celebrity glorifying tv shows.

    • Tom B Says:

      Thanks Kenny & Ephemeral NY. Never heard of these poems. Read them now. Never to old to learn. Is there a progressive story of how Poets became Beatniks in coffee houses 50 years later?

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Glad to hear you’re reading EA Robinson…he’s not trendy these days, unfortunately. I don’t think there’s necessarily a progressive story about 1920s poets becoming beatniks in the 1950s. Greenwich Village began attracting Bohemians/artists/writers around the turn of the century, and it’s reputation as a place for creative people is as strong as ever (even though it’s long been one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city).

      • kenny Says:

        There must be something in the water. Today’s generation know the neighborhood mainly as the home of taylor swift, youtube’s actionkid (love him) among them. At this very moment someone is taking a selfie in front of the sex and the city and friends apartments. An unending spring of inspiration.

  3. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Thanks for including the portrait by Lilla Cabot Perry. I’d never heard of her, so I looked her up on Wikipedia and discovered I much enjoy her work.

  4. countrypaul Says:

    Fascinating; you’ve shone a light into a forgotten corner of my youth. “Richard Cory” stung indeed. I need to go back and read more of his work. Thanks!

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