Culture

Unacknowledged Legislators Impeached

Why isn't the United States doing more for its poets laureate?

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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 (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) writes from Los Angeles.

NEXT: Books: All Literate People Should Stop Buying Them. And It's Sarah Palin's Fault.

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  1. Um…on second thought, could we hear more about Sarah Palin, please?

  2. “Something there is in Americans that doesn’t love a poet laureate.”

    Now that is poetry.

  3. Americans want to know what happened to the man from Nantucket.

  4. I’d heard of Pinsky, but only because he was on The Simpsons. and if he hadn’t been named in the article, I wouldn’t have remembered.

    I thought the poem he read on the show was good, but looking at some of his other stuff later, found it pretty pointless.

  5. Gosh man Cavanaugh, who has even heard of the Poet Laureate position in this country? Resurrecting the obscure to mask the shortage of material?

  6. It’s not often that Reason makes me chuckle. This article did. Back when I was an undergrad, I was a student and friend of the unofficial poet laureate of UMASS Boston (Duncan Nelson). Man, that man could recite; despite his stammer.

  7. ‘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.’

    Now I understand why the Iranians love New Jersey so much. I mean, what’s not to love in a state which produces such high art?

    1. I was wondering why the man’s nonsense ravings were plastered on the walls on the NJ Transit waiting room at Penn Station. Now I know.

  8. I want to nominate Lil’ Wayne as our next poet laureate.

    Or maybe Will Smith.

    1. Crap was that racist?

      Okay how about Ernest Kline, that makes it not racist. Right?

      1. Crap that’s all men, and might be sexist.

        What about Missy Elliot, or the Queen.

        1. Anybody except Maya Angelou or Rod McKuen.

          1. Pretty sure Angelou has already been poet laureate.

      2. Eminem, or maybe Slim Shady or perhaps Marshall Mathes III… Those three can rhyme! It’s a three way tie!

  9. Thanks for this article, I really enjoyed it. Not sure how REASON-ish it is, but whatever.

    I’m grateful the poet laureate position isn’t life tenure, or even for 10 years. I couldn’t take 10 years of Maya Angelou’s hot air and her sycophantic followers. She did some great stuff…30 years ago. Now she needs to do the right thing and go into seclusion.

  10. I like the early stuff, but it was total sell out afetr that. Oh wait, i’m thinking of Dire Straits.

    1. you got a problem with “Money for Nothin’?”

  11. How about George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher?

    Gratification achieved by dismemberment
    Unnatural legions ravage the carcasses
    Open wounds targets for evil defilers
    Seed of iniquity covers the body parts

    Necrosadistic warning
    You will not rest in peace

    Violate
    Death so foul
    Ejaculate
    Pieces raped

    1. Sounds like a Cannibal Corpse song.

      1. Is that a joke? If not, google corpsegrinder.

  12. By the way, the e-mails are causing such a ruckus among the left and the leftist scientists, falling over themselves to explain away their significance. It is soooo funny to watch…

  13. I think that it’s me
    Screw those other guys, they suck
    Don’t you agree, folks

    1. sage,

      you should be the one
      with the laureate title
      then we can ignore

      😉

  14. STEVE SMITH WANT SACK OF BUTT!

  15. I imagine Obama would prefer a Poetry Czar. Bush would have liked a Poet General.

  16. Ted Hughes was the British Poet Laureate for 14 years despite being such a miserable bastard that two of his wives committed suicide to get away from him. And there were persistent rumors that he had a lifelong sexual relationship with his older sister.

  17. On Friday we get a treatise on the political implications and sexual mores of Twilight, now this. Struggling much for material?

  18. On a side note, two of my Poet Laureate choices: Buddy Wakefield, two time slam poetry champion:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZkofA_TWVw

    And Qwel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxaXS6i0Ne4 :

    how many shorties born in debt to day
    cause aint no question we was raised to be a slave in the system
    victimised by the initials missile get they headins straight
    thinkin wishful in the midst get stuck for debtors rates
    not the holly ghandi or john d rocka on his get away
    like jesus on the tables in your temples flip your cheddar plates
    the more things change they stay the same feudal serfdom
    twice the burden and toil but now the soil aint worth none
    it?s funny when moneys backed by lies plus interest
    but everybody clutchin for they lives what is this
    we dummies nobody in they mind admits this
    image blinded so nobody in they eyes aquitted
    when every infant is a number
    every number a limit
    reduction quickens at the cypher we convinced its infinite
    we can approach the hocus pocus till the focus diminish
    lonely vultures grabbin riches his lonely throne in this prison

    you haul 16 tons yall and what do you get
    besides another day older colder deeper in debt
    it seems for everyone forgiven
    a million forget it
    indebted
    instead of resistin listen this is his weapon
    we left decisions for the heavens
    what if heavens within us among us
    it aint metaphysics its physics they?ve hidden from us
    no kiddin
    you spit some real shit and youll get strung up
    but sell it out and get a class or mass to spit in front of
    and none of these greedy fuckers give your mind respect
    were easy to control and mold with our minds on stress
    plucked my i from the iris of the irs
    we tryin to die hard or scared for the imf
    yellin fuckem from my chest and leapt from zions crest
    kept my eyes on the prize python eyein my neck
    left bygone for buygones at saigons desk
    comply yall and buy on naw rely on death

    you haul thirty two tons yall and what do you get
    besides a number for your name and disability checks
    they lock you up for shit they do we pay facilities rents
    its kinda silly aint it not really to the childrens defense
    just like the DA that we pay whos building this fence
    press sneaks like a dj but ill in a sense
    been killin it since when eve ate just buildin interest
    rates a peakin secret treasure keeps him fillin his chest
    just like breath to a hethen keeps him ill and arrested
    or aquitted or shit it might-ite get him elected
    next elective selected rewrite the right to live objective
    checks and balances by gallons and metallic infection
    defective prisms for the difference the mission projected
    how many messages we given wrong but livin this lesson
    born indebted to the system of the thorn and the credit
    performin it before a senate board (bored) ignorin i said it

    you haul sixty four tons lord and what do you get
    besides a scepter you can bow before now before death
    an hour before pow and out the clouds like power of breath
    towers of debt collectin cobwebs but now we got calluses
    alice just challenged her class so its off with her head
    offered her severence silver plattered like the baptist and said
    servant aint nothin for certain cept these taxes and death
    just like a serpent double fanged laughin slashin the s
    envision it these bitches savages to grab at your sense
    tobacco debacles to shackle followers hollowin grapple they dollars to shackle knowledge in
    the
    closets of colleges
    hollarin it if you hear me yall in actual affect
    it aint natural the fastened hold the national debt
    the castle moats the lasso rope when the castles your neck

    you haul sixteen tons yall and what do you get
    besides a castle for a tyrant and a life in his debt
    they walk you in a hurdled circle and charge you to step
    charge you at birth charge you in court and charge you at death

  19. First, they name if I am not mistaken a Poet Laureate every year. There just are not enough poets who deserve the title. So, you are pretty much gaurenteed to get a mediocrity most years.

    Second, elites have killed poetry just like they have killed classical and jazz. Once art stops appealing to the masses and only appealing to “people who get it” it becomes irrelevent. That is what happened to classical music. Composers in the 20th Century, at least respectable ones unlike Coplan or Gershwin who actually had listeners, stopped writing listenable tonal music. That was petty and borgeouis. Serious composers did atonal music that only the elect got. Same thing happaned to jazz. Jazz was the people’s music and ruled the pop world until the music snobs got ahold of it. Once that happened it was dead.

    Poetry used to mean something. People used to read it and have it affect their lives. It to has been destroyed by the idea that anything that is middle brow or in anyway appeals to a wide audience must be shunned.

    High art should have a conversation with low art. Low art keeps high art teathered to an audience and about something beyond the artists vanity. High art raises high art up beyond the vulger. Sadly, that conversation has largely ceased in the last century. And as a result low art is more vulger than ever. And high art is more irrelevent than ever.

    1. I think it more likely that elites have kept poetry alive. The masses would have P Diddy Poet Laureate.

      1. Poets like Tennyson and Keats were wildly popular with the masses. It is that the elites have made poetry inaccessible and irrelevent to the masses. So the masses, having nothing else, turn to P-Diddy.

        1. Here is why I doubt this: what % of the masses in Tennyson’s day do you think could read and write?

          1. From the eternal wiki: “As late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write”

            Being as how Keats was long dead at this time and that common sense would tell us these figures were even worse among “the masses” of the day I have to question your assertion that he was “wildly popular” with the masses.

            1. How profoundly illiterate you have to be not to even be able to sign your own name. You think you’d at least learn it as a symbol for replication purposes.

              Anyway, when you run about 500 kcal short of food every day, you don’t give a crap about poetry.

            2. See Colin below. And Tennyson seemed to do quite well. Name one poet today who doesn’t play guitar and is half as popular as Tennyson.

          2. I can you this: Pushkin was like a rock star in Russia — the masses swooned over him.

            Perhaps those who couldn’t read heard it recited.

          3. By the 19th Century literacy rats in Europe were well over 50%. Keats and Byron and the like were well known and had larger followings than any poet today. But, they wrote things people besides literary critics and oppression studies majors wanted to read.

            1. So, I take it you have done a thorough survey of contemporary poetry to come to your conclusions on the subject.

              More poetry is published today than ever has been. I am sure you could find something you like out there somewhere.

    2. High art has always been defined and dominated by the elites. That’s why they call it “high art”. This is nothing new. Regarding Jazz, you are probably right. It did start off as popular music of the people and is now the province of the snootiest of the snooty in many ways.

    3. Good points.

      I think the rise of general literacy and the decline of titled aristocracy make it hard to draw solid conclusions about what was elite and what was popular in the past. The best parable about this is Proust’s comparison of the Verdurin and Guermantes salons. The Guermantes salon is where the real elite gather — actual dukes and viscomtesses and whatnot. You can spend your whole life trying to get an introduction there. The Verdurin salon, on the other hand, is strictly second-class, nouveau riche. And what really marks the difference is that the Verdurins don’t mind if their guest list shows up in the society pages of the paper; the Guermantes understand that getting in the paper is vulgar, and if you want to mix with the Guermantes you need to understand it too. There’s an artistic element as well: It’s hinted that your chance of seeing something out-there and cutting edge — the example is a Maurice Maeterlinck play that would have been new at the time — is higher at the Verdurins’, which goes hand in hand with a high rate of actress/hookers and other shady characters. The Guermantes, on the other hand, are all about high quality.

      But the thousand-page joke is on the Guermantes, because their salon and their whole circle end up totally forgotten, while the Verdurin salon — for which there is an abundant written record — becomes the officially recognized cream of the crop. Historians end up writing about how exclusive and elite the Verdurin salon was at the turn of the century.

      1. There is nothing wrong with being “elite”. But art has to appeal and speak to a wide audience. If it can only speak to a small audience that has to go out of its way to get it, it is probably bad art. Yes, a lot of art starts out appealing to only a small group. But eventually it has to connect. If it never does, it was probably crap. The role of the avent guard is to eventually drag the massess somewhere new. If the avent guard ignores the masses and says “who cares if you don’t listen or read”, then they no longer serve any function.

  20. Oh get bent sudden, I think Reason’s “cultural” stuff is the best stuff they have. Don’t worry I’m sure we’ll have dozens of health care and Palin threads for ya in the immediate future…

    1. Haha. No need to get offended good sir. I was simply cracking a joke. I rather enjoy the cultural pieces as well (although, I couldve done without the Twilight-as-allegory-for-contemporary-America piece).

      1. Then please accept my humble apology.

  21. Poetry is just as, if not more, popular as it ever was.

    It’s just that 99% of it gets turned into songs.

  22. $35,000 in poetry dollars is quintillions green.

  23. SugarFree,

    Excellent point – it’s just that certain snobs define poetry as poetry *unaccompanied music* (at least as originally written). Once they make that an essential part of the definition, they can bemoan the lack of long lines outside the office of the local literary review, queueing up to purchase the Collected Poetry of Candace Emomaker.

    1. The unique pleasure of hipsterdom is rejecting anything you love once it becomes popular.

      1. and then announcing it on an ironic t-shirt.

          1. I liked that shirt until you linked to it. Sell out.

            1. Haters are the ultimate sell-outs.

              1. But I was hating in an ironic way.

                1. Yes, irony is very popular in certain circles.

  24. unaccompanied *by* music

  25. There’s six and a half minutes I’ll never get back.

  26. Can we get a national limerick composer laureate? That would be pretty sweet.

  27. SF – Lyrics today are the only poetry that rhymes. I have to guess if you went to a poetry slam with metrical rhyming verse, you would come out covered in organic tomatoes and bathed in expresso.

    Looking through a college yearbook collection from the early 20th century, I saw they dedicated dozens of pages to poems.

    1. And now it’s all song lyrics. Poetry used to have emotional resonance. That pretty much ended with The Beat Poets.

      Hell, the last two Beat Poets were musicians.

    2. I have to guess if you went to a poetry slam with metrical rhyming verse, you would come out covered in organic tomatoes and bathed in expresso.

      Actually I think you’d hear more rhyming at a poetry slam than on a college campus. It just would be more doggerel-type rhyming, so you’re probably right that it wouldn’t be metrical.

      But people should be inventing new metrical schemes anyway. Shelley used to write out metrical skeletons with dots and dashes, then put them in a desk until he could come up with words to fit them. And many of the canonical metrical forms are apparently not as canonical [PDF] as people think.

      1. Agreed. With the small amount of poetry slammin’ I’ve been exposed to, there seems to be more rhyming going on than anywhere else. In my humble opinion, the whole ‘Poetry Slam’ concept has been fueled by the hip-hop community. Which I’ve yet to find on google maps.

        1. Yeah, the hiphop community has had a hard time getting its stimulus money because of that.

          1. The hip-hop community just isn’t in the right imaginary Congressional District.

  28. Literacy killed literary poetry. Once it became a phenomenon of the page and not the voice, people found it much more enjoyable to read novels instead. Storytellers become novelists, bards became rock stars, and poetry retreated into a defensive shell of attempting to not be narrative, to not be lyrical, to not be derivative of earlier work… when a genre of art is primary driven by what you can’t do to remain part of it, it calcifies. As poetry has painted itself in a tinier and tinier corner, it has become impossible to make money at or become famous at it. All that’s left are martyrs, wallowing in the callow joy of their own sacrifice.

    1. when a genre of art is primary driven by what you can’t do to remain part of it, it calcifies.

      Holy shit, SugarFree. Y’all betta reckanize, ain’t nobody steppin to the Shuga!

  29. (Current officeholder Kay Ryan doesn’t even do interviews.)

    Maybe not for you…

    1. She misrepresented herself to me. In turning down my iterview requests she said, “I’m not giving interviews of any kind now. I did give interviews at the beginning [of her tenure, presumably] but it became too much of a burden on my time.”

      Damn lying poets!

    2. Runner’s World?!! She comes off more like the Runner Laureate.

  30. Part of the problem is the style in which Serious Poetry is delivered today – it is often in an emotionless, academic style, such as the poem delivered at Obama’s inauguration. Remember that? No?

    I rest my case.

  31. I felt lost and confused after the first paragraph. What’s a ‘dithyramb’ now?

  32. The article reads like the end of a 60 minutes broadcast.

  33. Byron’s attack on Southey is the most famous example, but vituperating the laureate is a venerable tradition.

    I think I’m getting a chubby.

  34. Can you name the U.S. poet laureate?

    Sure I could, but would he accept the name I choose for him?

  35. Have no clue who the poet laureate of the United States is, but I do know that Nipsy Russell was the great poet laureate of television ever.

  36. Pinsky is actually a pretty decent poet. And his little explanatory book, The Sounds of Poetry, is excellent.

    BTW — he’s from the state of the day, NEW JERSEY.

    1. He has one hell of a NASCAR team as well.

  37. I did give interviews at the beginning [of her tenure, presumably] but it became too much of a burden on my time.

    “Damn America’s insatiable thirst for poets!”

  38. Roses are red

    Violets are blue

    If I was the poet laureate

    I wouldn’t tell you

  39. Ted Hughes was the British Poet Laureate for 14 years despite being such a miserable bastard that two of his wives committed suicide to get away from him. And there were persistent rumors that he had a lifelong sexual relationship with his older sister.

    I was unaware they even had mormons in Limeyland.

    1. The 2nd wife not only killed herself in the same manner as Plath, she was holding her and Ted’s 4 year old daughter while she was in the oven and killed her as well.

      1. Well that’s just peachy. Fucking artists. We should institutionalize all of them once we get health care so they don’t hurt themselves and the children. Think of the children.

  40. The poet laureate is Glen Beck. What’s your problem?

  41. Byron was only about fourteen years younger than Southey, actually.

  42. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  43. Literacy killed literary poetry. Once it became a phenomenon of the page and not the voice, people found it much more enjoyable to read novels instead. Storytellers become novelists, bards became rock stars, and poetry retreated into a defensive shell of attempting to not be narrative, ???? ????? ?????? ??????? ???? ????? ????? ??????? to not be lyrical, to not be derivative of earlier work… when a genre of art is primary driven by what you can’t do to remain part of it, it calcifies. As poetry has painted itself in a tinier and tinier corner, it has become impossible to make money at or become famous at it. All that’s left are martyrs, wallowing in the callow joy of their own sacrifice.

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