On August 10, 2011, Philip Levine was appointed the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. As the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Levine now occupies one of the best known literary positions in the country. Yet despite its high public profile, there are many aspects of the laureateship that remain unclear, or downright mystifying, to the public.
One bit of confusion is the widespread belief that the laureateship is funded with taxpayers’ money. In fact, the position is maintained through a privately funded endowment made to the Library in 1936 by the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. Another uncertainty surrounds the official title of the Poet Laureate. From 1937 to 1985, the title was “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”; in 1985, an act of Congress changed the title to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” The greatest confusion, however, centers on a more fundamental question about the nature of the position:
What, exactly, does a Poet Laureate do?
Poets Laureate are well familiar with this question, and hard-pressed to provide a clear answer. Howard Nemerov was only half joking in 1963 when he wrote, “The Consultant in Poetry is a very busy man, chiefly because he spends so much time talking with people who want to know what the Consultant in Poetry does.”  More recent Laureates have been quick to reference Nemerov’s words when asked to describe their own duties.
The responsibilities of Poets Laureate during their terms are not well understood because there are few formal requirements. Essentially, the requirements are three:
- Poets Laureate must give a reading or presentation to inaugurate their term
- Poets Laureate must select the two annual Witter Bynner Fellows and introduce them at their Library of Congress reading
- Poets Laureate must give a reading or presentation to close their term
Outside of these major responsibilities, Poets Laureate largely are given the freedom to shape the position based on their interests and inclinations. Some Laureates assume a highly visible role as a national advocate for poetry, while others eschew the spotlight and focus on their writing.
When the position’s title changed in 1985 to include the phrase “Poet Laureate,” the visibility and popularity of the position greatly increased, and more emphasis was placed on it serving, as Librarian of Congress James H. Billington is fond of saying, as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” To this end, many Poets Laureate have developed programs and projects designed to increase the appreciation of poetry among the American public. Joseph Brodsky (1991-92), for instance, initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms. Rita Dove (1993-95) brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists, and also championed children’s poetry and jazz with poetry events. Robert Hass (1995-97) sponsored a major conference on nature writing, “Watershed,” which continues today as a national poetry competition, “River of Words,” for elementary and high school students.
The development of large-scale poetry projects by U.S. Poets Laureate is a relatively recent phenomenon and coincides with the growth of the Internet as a medium through which poetry can be read, distributed, and discussed by a national audience. Since 1997, four Poet Laureate projects have reached a national audience through their online presences:
- The Favorite Poem Project was created in 1997 by Robert Pinsky as a way for Americans to acknowledge and express the important role poetry plays in their lives
- Poetry 180 was developed in 2001 by Billy Collins to introduce high school students to poetry by presenting them with a new poem for each of the 180 days of the school year
- American Life in Poetry, launched in 2005 by Ted Kooser, has helped expand the reach of poetry by providing newspapers and online publications with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems
- Poetry for the Mind’s Joy was developed in 2009 by Kay Ryan to highlight poetry being written on community college campuses
It’s fascinating to compare the activities of recent Poets Laureate with those of the first Consultants in Poetry from the 1930s and 1940s. The duties of the Consultant were similar to those of a modern reference librarian, and the goal of the Consultant was to serve primarily as a collection specialist and resident scholar in poetry and literature. In an April 27, 1943, memorandum, reference librarian David C. Mearns described to Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish the expected duties of Allen Tate, the second Consultant in Poetry:
- To survey the existing collections in order to determine their strengths and weaknesses.
- To initiate recommendations for the purchase of additions to the collections.
- To engage in correspondence with authors and collectors with a view to securing important gifts of books and manuscripts.
- To respond to reference questions submitted by mail, and to compile occasional bibliographies.
- To confer with scholars using the Library’s collections and facilities.
- To make suggestions for the improvement of the service.
From 1937 to 1985, the position gradually placed less emphasis on developing the Library’s collections and more on organizing local poetry readings, lectures, conferences, and outreach programs. By the time the title was changed to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, the position bore little resemblance to its initial incarnation, though Mearns’s warning for Tate about the job might resonate with some recent Laureates:
He should be warned that some of the questions referred to his attention will be trifling. They will emanate from school girls as well as from scholars, from poetry “groups”, and women’s clubs, and program makers, and catch-penny anthologists, and talent testers, and moon-struck (perhaps moon-stricken) novices too ponderous to be raised by Pegasus. Such work is part of the job; but it can be rather instructive and amusing.
Nemerov, Howard. “What Does the Consultant in Poetry Do?” Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987. By William McGuire. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988. 465-468.