(The following is a story written by Peter Armenti, literature specialist for the Digital Reference Section, found in the March/April 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
The nation’s most acclaimed poets have helped the Library of Congress promote poetry for nearly 80 years.
The highest poetry office in the country belongs–both literally and symbolically–to the U.S. Poet Laureate. Headquartered at the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center in the attic of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the Poet Laureateship is the only national position dedicated to raising awareness and appreciation of poetry among the American public.
FROM CONSULTANT TO LAUREATE
Originally established in 1936 as an endowed Chair of Poetry in the English Language, the position, as conceived by Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, was created to build the Library’s literary collections and encourage their public use. The Library’s Consultant in Poetry, in other words, was expected to perform duties today carried out by full-fledged librarians. This is reflected in a memo to poet Allen Tate (1943-1944) outlining his duties, which were limited not to only poetry but to “all English and American literature.” Tate was appointed by Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
During the next 50 years, less emphasis was placed on requiring the Consultant in Poetry to develop the Library’s collections and more on organizing local poetry readings, lectures, conferences and outreach programs. A defining moment came in 1985, when Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga’s two-decade campaign to create a national Poet Laureate position resulted in an act of Congress (Public Law 99-194), which changed the consultant’s title to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” and charged the Librarian of Congress with making the selection.
In 1986, Robert Penn Warren became the first poet appointed under the new title, having been the Library’s third Consultant in Poetry more than 40 years earlier. Howard Nemerov (1963-1964; 1988-1990) and Stanley Kunitz (1974-1976; 2000-2001) also have the distinction of serving twice, each having been appointed Poetry Consultant and Poet Laureate.
“The Poet Laureate post is an honor, not a job,” said Pinsky.
By including “Poet Laureate” in the title, the position became the American equivalent of the well-known and longstanding position of British Poet Laureate. As a result, the visibility of the office, along with expectations for it, ballooned. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington described the Poet Laureate as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” Dr. Billington has appointed all but two of the 20 Poets Laureate. In June 2014, he appointed Charles Wright the 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
PROMOTING POETS AND POETRY
Fostering the work of promising poets has long been an interest, if not a responsibility, of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Each year the Poet Laureate selects two or more poets to receive the Witter Bynner fellowship.
The fellows are recognized at a reading in the nation’s capital and go on to organize local poetry readings in their own communities.
Administered by the Library of Congress, the fellowship is sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968) was a prolific poet and philanthropist who made provisions for a poetry foundation after his death. The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was incorporated in 1972 in New Mexico to provide grant support for the writing of poetry through nonprofit organizations. Since its inception in 1998, 37 poets have received the Witter Bynner fellowship, including the recently selected 2015 winners.
Per the legislation establishing the office, the Poet Laureate is appointed solely on the basis of a poet’s lifetime literary achievement and has few official responsibilities. However, many Poets Laureate have used the prestige and resources conferred through the position to launch initiatives, and sometime large-scale projects, that seek to introduce–or reintroduce–people to the value of poetry in their everyday lives.
Joseph Brodsky (1991-1992) developed the idea of providing poetry in public places–supermarkets, hotels, airports, hospitals–where people congregate and “can kill time as time kills them.”
Rita Dove (1993-1995) brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists, and also championed children’s poetry and jazz through multiple events.
Robert Hass (1995-1997) sponsored a major conference on nature writing, “Watershed,” which continues today as a national poetry, art and environmental impact competition, “River of Words,” for elementary and high school students.
Billy Collins (2001-2003) encouraged the nation’s high-school students to read a poem a day during the 180-day school year.
Kay Ryan (2008-2010) reached out to the nation’s community-college students and professors through a poetry-writing contest and a video conference featuring tips about writing poetry and aspects of her own writing process.
A number of Poets Laureate, such as Robert Pinsky, Ted Kooser and Natasha Trethewey, have also developed poetry projects with unprecedented scope.
Robert Pinsky, who served an unprecedented three terms (1997-2000), issued a national call for people to send him their favorite poems, along with their justifications. Pinsky received more than 18,000 submissions to his Favorite Poem Project. Selected submissions were subsequently gathered into three poetry anthologies.
The centerpiece of the project was the development of 50 video documentaries featuring people reading and discussing their favorite poems. The videos, which aired as segments on PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” can be viewed on the Favorite Poem Project website and are a permanent part of the Library’s Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. The project endures today, with six recent videos featuring the favorite poems of Chicagoans and plans for more videos in the future.
Ted Kooser (2004-2006) initiated the American Life in Poetry Project to introduce poetry to a broad range of readers through his free weekly poetry column in newspapers and online publications. Each column consists of short poems that an average reader can understand and appreciate, along with a few introductory words from Kooser. The project, which continues after a decade and more than 500 columns, has been immensely successful in reaching millions of readers each week.
Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014) participated in “Where Poetry Lives,” a series of reports with PBS ”NewsHour” Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, which uses poetry as a framework through which to view important issues facing American society. Stories featuring Trethewey have ranged from a profile of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project in Brooklyn, N.Y., which seeks to help victims of dementia engage their memories through poetry and other forms of language play, to a visit with troubled teens in King County Juvenile Detention Center in Seattle, Wash., who work with the nonprofit Pongo Teen Writing Project to express themselves by turning their stories into poetry.
Future Poets Laureate will remain free to shape the position. But one thing is certain: the Poet Laureateship will continue to serve as a national symbol of the government’s commitment to honoring, promoting and preserving a place for poetry in American society.