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How is the Poet Laureate Selected?

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This post addresses one of the most common questions received by the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center:

How is the Poet Laureate selected?

Since the presidential election season is upon us, I should first hasten to point out that Poet Laureate is not appointed the same way as the U.S. president: there are no Poet Laureate primaries, no Free and Formal Verse National Conventions, and there is no national election.  And despite what some people seem to believe, the Poet Laureate also is not selected like the Pope: there is no conclave of leading poets who gather at the Library to cast secret ballots for the next Poet Laureate (and we’d certainly never use smoke to indicate a new Laureate was selected!). No, the selection process is much simpler, and goes something like this:

The Librarian of Congress identifies a poet he’d like to serve as Poet Laureate, confirms that the poet is willing and able to serve as Poet Laureate, and then appoints the poet to the position.

Since your average Librarian of Congress—with the possible exception of Archibald

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has selected every U.S. Poet Laureate since he first appointed Howard Nemerov to the position in 1988.

MacLeish—does not spend his time scouring literary magazines and keeping up on all the latest award winners in poetry, you might ask how he identifies potential candidates for Poet Laureate. The answer is that in any given year the Librarian may seek suggestions from the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, the outgoing Poet Laureate, former Consultants and Poets Laureate, and distinguished poets and poetry critics. Based on the suggestions the Librarian receives, he will often develop a short list of potential candidates whose work he will read—quick access to the poets’ published collections is not an issue at the largest library in the world!—en route to making a selection. I should emphasize that the final decision on which poet to appoint to the position is the Librarian’s alone. And Rob Casper, the current head of the Poetry and Literature Center, says that Librarian James H. Billington is more than up to the task—”He’s one of the most generous and astute readers of poetry I have ever known,” in Rob’s words.

With a few exceptions, especially in the early history of the Consultantship, as the position was previously known, the Librarian of Congress has always been open to receiving suggestions for who should serve in the position. While most of the suggestions have been made by groups or individuals with no official connection to the Library, for a short period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s the Librarian of Congress was assisted in his selection by a more official entity, the Fellows of the Library of Congress in American Letters (or, for short, the Fellows in American Letters). Established in 1944 by Allen Tate, this small group of American poets and critics—the initial members included Katherine Garrison Chapin (Francis Biddle), Katherine Anne Porter, Willard Thorp, Mark Van Doren, Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Green, Allen Tate, and Carl Sandburg—would come to be involved in a number of the Library’s literary activities, including developing the Library’s literary collections, selecting winners of certain poetry prizes, and, of course, recommending poets for the Consultantship in Poetry.

Some of the correspondence between individual members of the Fellows in American Letters shed light on the historical selection process for the Consultantship and make for entertaining reading (since the Fellows gathered at the Library only once a year, much of their discussion took the form of written correspondence). Fortunately, a number of the Fellows’ letters are available online through the American Memory collection Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953, and they offer readers a glimpse of the debate surrounding the selection of individual Consultants. For example, in the first several months of 1945, Robert Penn Warren conducted an informal poll among the Fellows about who should serve as the next Consultant. A selection of the letters exchanged between Warren and the other Fellows are reproduced in Freedom’s Fortress. For your reading enjoyment, below I provide links to the digitized letters, with brief notes on their contents:

Warren recommends R. P. Blackmur be appointed the next Consultant from a list of six candidates that includes Theodore Spencer, Paul Engle, Winfield Townley Scott, Louise Bogan, and Delmore Schwartz.

Letter from Robert Penn Warren to Luther Harris Evans, January 26, 1945
Robert Penn Warren’s Letter to Librarian of Congress Luther Evans lists six candidates for the Consultant in Poetry

Thorp confirms for Librarian of Congress Luther Evans that R. P. Blackmur is qualified to serve as Consultant.

Tate reviews Warren’s list of six candidates and names Blackmur and Bogan as his “double first choice,” though he lists Blackmur first because Bogan might be unavailable to work in Washington for a year.

Porter suggests either Blackmur or Bogan for the position, deeming “Miss Bogan the better poet, Mr. Blackmur the better critic.”

Biddle lists Theodore Spencer as her first choice for “qualities of scholarship and relationship to the subject,” while Blackmur is a “strong second choice.”

Green recommends Paul Engle “without mentioning the many reasons” for his choice.

Librarian of Congress Luther Evans mails Sandburg a press release announcing Louise Bogan’s appointment as the Consultant in Poetry. Evans notes that in the balloting which Robert Warren conducted, “Ms. Bogan and Mr. Paul Engle were almost tied for first place.” Miss Bogan was selected because she “had indicated informally that she could accept; Mr. Engle, that he could not accept. . . .”

One of the differences between the selection process leading to Louise Bogan’s appointment and the modern Poet Laureate selection process is that the general public can now contact the Poetry and Literature Center to nominate poets for the position. The nomination process is informal—all that is required is the name of the poet—but all nominations received by the Center are taken into consideration when determining which poets should be brought to the Librarian of Congress’ attention. While there are no formal qualifications to serve as Poet Laureate, keep in mind that Poets Laureate usually have several critically acclaimed collections of poetry to their name and are highly respected in the literary community for their work. If a poet’s publication credits include only self-published works or poems published by amateur poetry anthologies, they are probably not yet ready to serve in the nation’s leading poetry position. With that caveat, let us know which poet you think deserves to serve as the next Poet Laureate!

Comments (20)

  1. While I will humbly admit that I have no idea who might be a good candidate for the next Poet Laureate, I did want to leave a comment to say thank you for posting this piece! It was very informative and interesting!

  2. I agree with Barbara’s comment above. I very much look forward to hearing from you about the PL term of the much-deserving Natasha Trethewey!

  3. I was looking at my poetry library recently and wanted to recommend a few poets that have written GREAT work and also do for others. Frank Bidart and Lloyd Schwartz have taught and mentored many poets over the years, have supported poetry in the schools and are just darn good people. I have the fondest memories of both these great poets and want them to be able to keep supporting the craft and art of poetry for current and future generations.

  4. My father, a poet who has been internationally recognized in some highly acclaimed circles within the poetry world for five decades, was runner up recently for the Arizona poet laureate. I would like to figure out a way to highlight to those involved that he might be considered for the National title. I believe if noticed it would be more than appropriate. However, he is extremely humble and currently does not have an agent. As strange as it may sound, he goes by an old fashioned idea that he has to wait to be invited or noticed in order to be recognized. Please advise! I can be reached at [email protected]

    • Wini, please feel free to contact us though our Ask a Librarian service with more information about your father and his work. I’ll be happy to pass along the information you share with the head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center. This will ensure that your father is given appropriate consideration when it comes time to select the next U.S. Poet Laureate.


      Peter Armenti

  5. See the review of Herrera’s poetry in the December NEW CRITERION, pp. 74-75.

  6. Well this explains why the poets selected to the position tend to write dry, uninteresting, self-inflated chopped prose.

  7. I was interested in how become a Poet Laureate, not a consultant as yet. Can you sent me information on becoming a Austin, Texas Poet Laureate.

    • Dear Fay,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  8. Thank you for your blog. I published a book of poetry in December (2017). The book is titled, “God Moments Devotional”. As a new, unknown author, who does not have any major endorsements, would my book still qualify me for consideration as a Poet Laureate candidate for the United States? If so, please let me know what steps I should take in order to gain the requisite notoriety/exposure, and thereby increase my chances of being considered. Thank you.

    • Dear Mr. Paige,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  9. This content of this article was informative and inspiring. I have been writing poetry most of my adult life and have taught English and Creative Writing. I’ve published two books of sonnets: In Shakespeare’s Shadow and Broken Birds. I would like to resuscitate the sonnet into modern poetry. Currently, I am working on my third book of poetry which includes sonnets and free verse. Could you please assist me in ways to have my poetry reviewed by the Poet Laureate and receive advice as to furthering my poetry’s exposure. Any help you can provide will be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you, Maria Tucciarone

    • Dear Ms. Tucciarone,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  10. I believe we need a poet whose work matches the heartbeat of America. I think Jim Daniels of Carnegie Mrllon is this poet. Read “Machine Love” or Short Order Cook.”

    He was born in Detroit and his poems resonate with the hardworking people of this country.

  11. While I am not critically acclaimed nor well known in academia, I am founder of Arts of Poetry Magazine and Author two self published books. I found it so difficult to find support in publishing for poets. I found that only through collaborations were poets able to be seen. Majority of the poets I found were working through college connections. I was told my poetry was raw and in going to classes found new and interesting ways to expand my talent but I have to be true to myself. My poetry happens instantaneously. It’s as natural for me to write poetry as it is to breathe. My mission in life is to help other poets find opportunities to share their poetry. In my magazine which before covid-19 we were distributing 10,000 copies quarterly, we help unknown poets and artists. Over the past 3yrs we shared over 200 artists and poets work for free. Help me with guidance as to what I can do to qualify for such a position as poet laureate locally and or nationally. Thank you

    • Dear Denise,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  12. Although I have had seven plus poetry books, culminating recently with my life-long project called “The Vincent Poems” which has just been sent to the printer. I’ve received my author’s copy and it’s a beautiful book.
    Will my collection of books also be housed in The Library of Congress?
    The list of titles I’ve had published by One Spirit Press in Portland, OR are as follows: Homeless. and Other Poems, Tributes, Urban Desert, Desert Trilogy (3 previous books in one volume), Zen Poet, Letters to a Another Young Poet, Impact, Unheeded Warnings, Leaves No Visible Footprint,
    and The Vincent Poems.

    • Dear Jauren,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. Our staff will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  13. May I respectfully recommend Colin Meloy?

  14. I don’t know who should be the next one, but I aspire to one day be considered myself!

Comments are closed.