Something there is in Americans that doesn’t love a poet laureate. Literarily speaking, we’re a nation of hard bodies; we prefer our writing either “lean” and “muscular” or “taut” and “sculpted.” Our collective image of a poet is somewhere between Walt Whitman and Percy Dovetonsils, the absurd rhymester played by Ernie Kovacs as the opposite of Yankee good sense and pragmatism. The laureate part doesn’t sound very democratic either, conjuring images of Roman court flatterers, bewigged monarchs who commission dithyrambs for royal hymens.
Yet here we are, 233 years into the American experiment and 72 years into the de facto and de jure reign of U.S. poets laureate.
Can you name the U.S. poet laureate? Before looking into the position, I could name only two poets laureate in all of history: the Englishman Bob Southey, who was the butt of a funny anti-laureate screed at the beginning of Byron’s “Don Juan,” and New Jersey laureate Amiri Baraka, whose tenure ended in 2003 when the Garden State’s legislature voted 69-2 to abolish the position rather than hear any more of “Somebody Blew Up America,” Baraka’s free-verse investigation into the Jews’ role in 9/11.
But after researching the issue I am now fairly certain that the United States doesn’t do enough for its national poet. Although the seat has been around since 1937, our instinctively anti-feudal nation resisted the vaguely Dantean title “poet laureate” in favor of “consultant in poetry.” In 1986 the post was redubbed “poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress”—a title leaden enough to kill the lyrical spirit in every breast.
By any name, the U.S. poet laureate doesn’t get much scratch. The compensation package of $35,000 in salary and $5,000 in travel expenses is not funded by taxpayer money. It comes out of a trust fund established in 1936 by the rail and shipping heir Archer M. Huntington. Huntington’s original donation of $250,000 in stock has grown at a decent but unspectacular rate: As of 2008 the Huntington Fund, managed by the Bank of New York, was worth $4.6 million. (If you’d like to throw in a few shekels yourself, go to the “Support the Library” link at loc.gov.) Yet the laureate’s salary hasn’t even kept pace with inflation. The first consultant, Joseph Auslander, made $3,000. That should come to $45,000 in 2009 bucks.
Everything’s like that for the American poet laureate. The British laureate gets a “butt of sack” (about 600 bottles of sherry) and is called upon to compose verse for national occasions. (Former laureate Andrew Motion whipped up poems for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday and the late Queen Mum’s 100th.) The U.S. poet laureate’s job, as described by the Library of Congress, is to serve as a “lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,” which sounds dangerously close to having to read unsolicited manuscripts. The laureate’s only duty is to give one lecture, during which the Huntington Fund pays for what a Library of Congress spokeswoman calls a “small, cheese-and-crackers reception.”
This Quaker leveling instinct applies to tenure as well. In the U.K., laureates hold office for 10 years; they used to hold it for life. The United States, fearful that a poet laureate might amass too much power, term-limits its laureates after only one year. In an interview for this article, former laureate Robert Pinsky voiced doubt that the position should exist in the first place, adding that the Library of Congress should at least “drop that monarchical-sounding title.”
A key function of the poet laureate has always been to serve as the literary old guard against which young Turks define themselves. Byron’s attack on Southey is the most famous example, but vituperating the laureate is a venerable tradition. (John Dryden was even fired for being Catholic.) The very catty U.S. poetry community has made some stabs at laureate politics. In 2001, after the popular and successful poet Billy Collins was named to the post, subscribers to the SUNY-Buffalo POETICS mailing list elected Anselm Hollo “anti-laureate” in the tradition of the anti-popes of Avignon. But nobody cared, and the anti-laureate movement quickly died out.
Not surprisingly, most laureates do little with what is essentially an honorific post. (Current officeholder Kay Ryan doesn’t even do interviews.) But some of them strive to promote poetry appreciation. The tireless Pinsky made energetic use of the post in the late ’90s and takes pride in the “Favorite Poem Project,” in which amateurs read favorite works aloud. These spoken-word cover versions present poetry as a participatory, performative, popular form. If Kay Ryan wants to put her stamp on the office, she will agitate for poetraoke machines in all public buildings (outside the metal detectors), so you can delight your fellow juror candidates by throwing down verses from “The Corsair” without having to memorize.
The most successful poetry czars, including Pinsky, Collins, and the late Ted Hughes in Britain, tend to be crowd pleasers unafraid of broad popular appeal. But there are limits. Laureates come out of the bookstore-reading tradition: that mastery of a precious, measured, slightly self-amused tone that tends to go down easy in a quiet room and be forgotten within seconds. It’s a long distance from the genre where the poetic impulse of Americans is most clearly on display: poetry slams, where versifiers actually compete before cheering or jeering audiences. The verse that results may not be for the ages, but it draws people in. Some 15,000 performers and spectators turned out for the 2009 National Poetry Slam in St. Paul.
If it’s hard to imagine a poet laureate freestyling for a roaring crowd, that may be a measure of the nation’s bipolar relationship to unitary executive power. It’s the cult of the presidency in miniature: We want to bend the knee to some authority, but doing so seems un-American, so we end up with the worst of both worlds—an authority without a mandate.
While I admire Pinsky’s skeptical and service-oriented approach to the office, I suspect poet laureateship might work better if it were less democratic. I want my poet laureate to be invested with elaborate titles; pomp and circumstance; power to grant and revoke poetic license; and verse tributes written in Greek and Latin by lesser poets. And how about some laurels? Can you really be a laureate if you don’t have a wreath?
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (email@example.com) writes from Los Angeles.