The Oxford English Dictionary defines “laureate” as someone who is “crowned with a laurel, wearing a laurel crown or wreath (as a symbol of distinction or eminence).” The word is derived from the Latin “laurus,” or, Laurel tree. A favorite of the god Apollo, the laurel branch was a symbol of honor and respect in the ancient world. In times past, laurels were typically conferred on military heroes and political leaders. It is easy to imagine those wearing the laurels being immortalized by poets, who sung their praises and preserved their stories for future generations.
A few entries below this one, the OED defines a “poet laureate” as one who is “distinguished for excellence as a poet, worthy of the Muses crown.” As far as we know, the term was first used in the English language in 1386, by Geoffrey Chaucer, who applied it to the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch in “The Clerk’s Prologue.”
It is difficult to know precisely when poets, who often conferred honors to the Olympians of their day, began to be honored in their own right. What we know is that the first English Poet Laureate was Ben Jonson, appointed by King James I. The position was conferred for life and required the poet to compose poems for state occasions. The office of Poet Laureate still exists today in England, largely unchanged from its original form.
But the story of the American Poet Laureate is quite different. According to Elizabeth Hun Schmidt’s introduction to the newly published The Poets Laureate Anthology, the office has its roots in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Archibald MacLeish, who served under President Roosevelt as the Librarian of Congress, is largely responsible for what has come to be known as the “Library of Congress Consultant in Poetry.” The first holder of the office, Joseph Auslander, was appointed in 1937, held the official title of “Poetry Chair at the Library of Congress” and saw his role as part of larger effort to build a national library.
While the English model of a Poet Laureate who composes verse for state occasions has never been followed in the U.S., poetry has occasionally been incorporated into passages of American power. Robert Frost famously wrote and delivered a poem for President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. More recently, Maya Angelou delivered poems for the inaugurations of both Presidents Obama and Clinton. However, while Robert Frost was a Poet Laureate at one time, he did not hold the office during the Kennedy inauguration. Likewise, Maya Angelou has never held the office.
What then, is the job of the American Poet Laureate? Aside from arranging formal poetry readings at the Library of Congress, the responsibilities are defined by the holder of it. It can be a bully pulpit, a teaching position, or simply a platform for the poet to continue his or her own work. Even though the office is a part of the Library of Congress, it is funded by a private endowment rather than public funds. Most who have held the office have accepted the position not so much as an honor as an opportunity to do good work.
“My impression, when I saw the kinds of things I was invited to do, was that the consultant/laureate was viewed as a kind of spokesperson or ambassador for American letters, or more narrowly, American poetry,” says Robert Hass about his term in the office, which spanned 1995 to 1997. It was during this time that Hass began writing a syndicated column on poetry for the Washington Post. He also worked on several projects to promote literacy in both rural and urban areas and initiated another project to connect the issue of literacy to environmental studies and regional writing.
Ted Kooser, who held the office from 2004 to 2006, also worked to promote the art of poetry but took more of a one-on-one approach with his audience.
“My goal was to try to counter the public's fear and loathing of poetry by showing people that poems can be both pleasurable and accessible,” says Kooser on his term. “ I talked to thousands of people through readings and speaking engagements and feel that I did a little good along those lines.”
Given that many poets do not wear laurels comfortably, the honor of the office can be a source of angst as well as pride. According to the biographical essays in The Poets Laureate Anthology, Robert Lowell compared the office to Kafka’s castle. Nevertheless, he worked to remedy what he saw as a paucity of spoken word recordings in the Library of Congress by arranging for T.S. Eliot to record readings of his works. Elizabeth Bishop and Mona Van Duyn admitted to being uncomfortable with the honor but accepted the work that accompanied it. Howard Nemerov summed up his feelings about the office by saying, “All this fame and honor is a nice thing, as long as you don’t believe it.”
Robert Frost befriended members of Congress during his term, seeing his role as moving beyond the field of poetry and voicing his opinions in the public arena. Maxine Kumin sees schoolteachers as the best hope of advancing the art of literature and saw her role as Poet Laureate as supporting them. The current Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, has used the office to encourage the writing of poetry by community college students, a cohort that is often overlooked. Not a surprising interest given that, for many years, Ryan’s day job has been the teaching of another often overlooked cohort, remedial English students.
The Poets Laureate Anthology brings together works by all of the poets who have held the office from its inception to the present day. Many of the poems included here are well known. Works such as Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Brooks’s “We Real Cool” are familiar to most readers, even those who do not typically read poetry. But, alongside the famous poets are many who are more obscure. More intriguing, perhaps, are the works by poets whose names are well known but whose own verse is not. Most students of literature know Robert Fitzgerald as the translator of the standard editions of The Illiad and The Odyssey. Fewer people are familiar with his original verse, which is featured here. Likewise, Louis Untermeyer’s anthologies of American and British verse are standard texts for many high school and college literature classes. But Untermeyer’s own poems are not widely read today. The anthology provides a sample.
The appearance of The Poets Laureate Anthology calls attention to an office about which many Americans know little. In our time, it would be easy to dismiss the idea of the Poet Laureate as old fashioned. But to do so would be to forget the poets who have accepted the office not as merely an honor but also as an opportunity to raise awareness of the art of poetry and the importance of the written word. Poets laureate are free to make of their terms what they will and this creates for the office a very healthy degree of mutability. Poets are, by their nature, outside of the establishment. Plato even excluded poets from his ideal Republic. There is a superb irony in that the office of the Poet Laureate seeks to bring poetry into the establishment but allows the poet to decide precisely what that means. The fact that it happened is a wonderful thing.
The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Smith
W. W. Norton