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Travis Nichols’ post on the current conjecture over who will or should be the next Poet Laureate of Britain contained a wonderfully sad story involving John McCain, Robert Pinksy, Charles Simic and an unfortunately bright-but-not-bright-enough man who wanted to illustrate McCain’s ignorance but instead illustrated his own (sidenote: I don’t see what this man’s being from Tennessee had to do with anything—the author of the original article could just have easily said that the man was from the US). The punchline was this: we live in a country where even somebody who seems to care about poetry enough to ask a trivia question about it (let’s call him “man from US”) doesn’t know who the Poet Laureate is. As for McCain, I think that a correct answer on his part—or even an answer on his part—would only have hurt him amongst his supporters; so, in essence, he gave the correct answer as far as likely McCain voters might be concerned.
But here’s a question for study: why does the United States even have a Poet Laureate? The position began as “The Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” I imagine that the original intent was that the appointee would act as an advocate for poetry’s role in American culture, and that he or she would symbolize our ongoing commitment to education, arts, enlightenment…You know, all of that stuff that Americans want to believe that they believe in without believing in it.
During the Reagan presidency, Congress officially added the term “Poet Laureate” to the appointee’s title. Our country was in love with monarchies again (thank you, Princess Diana) and perhaps the “laureatization” of the position made us feel like our official poet would be regarded as regal and stentorian, rather than seeming merely the sort of civil servant who would take a job as “consultant.”
Title VI of Senate Bill S.1264 passed in 1985 under the sponsorship of Dan Quayle. Maybe it’s time to think about repealing that title and restoring the less grandiose title to the office in question.
Elected officials blow with the winds of their constituancies. And none has blown any worse than former governor James McGreevey. Back in 2002, McGreevey called for Amiri Baraka to be removed from his symbolic office as New Jersey’s poet laureate, leading the New Jersey State Senate to enact a law eliminating his position.
The Baraka saga was a travesty. Maybe that would have been a good time for poets to begin considering whether they should accept honorific decorations of ruling bodies—unless the title being handed out has a Shakespearean irony to it. Maybe something like “State Fool?”