Poet laureate of the United States—something there is exceedingly pompous, not to say a little preposterous, about the very title. Poet laureate of England does not sound quite so hollow—though closer inspection reveals it isn’t all that full, either—perhaps because poetry has so much longer a history and solider a tradition in England than in America. The first truly great American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, after all, didn’t emerge until after the Civil War. Then we had to wait for the work of that remarkable generation of poets born between 1870 and 1890, the roster of whose names includes Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Marianne Moore, for the United States to stake anything like a serous claim to having a poetic tradition at all.
W. H. Auden was poet laureate neither in England nor in America, though on skill and achievement and by citizenship he qualified for both. Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, in some ways a more prestige-laden job than that of poet laureate and one for which he was pleased to have been voted, since it gave him free rent at Oxford. Auden once said that the time for major poets was past, even for him, who was born in 1907, which was too late, for by then something had happened to poetry to change its nature, its practitioners, and its audience. One cannot know for certain, of course, but one has a strong hunch that Auden would have viewed the job of poet laureate of the United States as, at best, highly amusing, if not outright hilarious. One likes to think of him taking the money—an annual salary of $35,000—and laughing all the way to the bank.
As a man who has published a single poem, my own position is that I would like to be asked to be poet laureate of the United States so that I could refuse it, for this seems to me a job that would bring much greater glory to turn down than to take up. True, I am not in danger of being asked to become poet laureate of the United States—or even of Illinois, the state in which I live, if it, like several other states, has a poet laureate (I’ve made a note someday—though not too soon—to check). But I have been a more than thirty-year subscriber to this magazine; I am someone who came of age with Oscar Williams’s splendid A Little Treasury of Modern Verse; and I continue to believe that, though the calling and craft of poetry have been debased every which way and in most others is in trouble, some of the best writing done in America continues to be written by poets and to show up in verse. Because I have great respect, affection, love for poetry, I find the creation of the poet laureateship of the United States a comical insult to a serious enterprise, and one which ought properly to be mocked every chance one gets.
Poets have long been supplied with laurels—from which the word “laureate” of course derives—most famously beginning with the Emperor Augustus’s taking up Virgil as, in effect, his house or palace poet. In the Middle Ages, kings great and minor kept court poets (also, it is well to remember, court jesters). In England, Ben Jonson received a salary from King Charles I, though he was assigned the writing of plays, not verse. The first official poet laureate in England was John Dryden, appointed by Charles II in 1668. Dryden was given a salary of £200 for the combined jobs of poet laureate and historiographer royal, with a butt (or 126-gallon cask) of good wine thrown in. Since Dryden, a professional writer and craftsman of the highest order, things for the poet laureateship in England have, I think it fair to say, tended for the most part to go downhill.
Wordsworth held the office briefly, having been given it when he was seventy-three-years old, and was never called upon to write an official poem while in office, if office is what a poet laureateship is. Tennyson held the job for fully forty-two years, from 1850 until his death in 1892. Much speculation about who would take up the laureateship followed his death. The interesting candidatures of Algernon Swinburne and Thomas Hardy were passed over for Robert Bridges. Bridges was succeeded not by A. E. Housman or Kipling, as some had hoped, but by John Masefield.
In between John Dryden and today lots of middling-men have been appointed poet laureate, such as Thomas Shadwell (1642?–1692), Laurence Eusden (1688–1730), and Robert Southey (1774–1843). Poets laureate have not been universally admired by their contemporaries. Byron, for example, regarded Southey as an arch-prince of cant, and a wit of the day said that his, Southey’s, reputation would live long after Homer’s had expired, but not until. In England, with a few exceptions, the preference for the job of poet laureate has generally been for the rugged middlebrow over the original or difficult talent. Andrew Motion, the current poet laureate, whose biography of Philip Larkin fingered the best poet of his time for being politically incorrect, is a perfect man for the job. What is wanted in a poet laureate is a rather solemn and high-toned mediocrity, someone whose work, though found perfectly acceptable in its time, is unlikely to divert the attention of posterity.
Interesting, is it not, that T. S. Eliot was never chosen as poet laureate, for he was a man who, one would think, might have luxuriated in the job. His being poet laureate would certainly have completed his transformation from American to Englishman. And yet Eliot was perhaps too fine, too deep, too original a poet to be laureate. He was also an extremely careful caretaker of his career, and might have supposed—correctly, in my view—that being the poet laureate of England would have been a come-down for the man who was the only internationally famous poet of his day, a poet who found audiences in the thousands attending his readings. He was really the unofficial poet laureate of the world; and, in the realm of poetry, “unofficial” is always better.
T. S. Eliot was dead more than twenty years before the creation of the poet laureateship in the United States in 1986. Before that, beginning in 1937, there was a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, first held by a now-forgotten man named Joseph Auslander. Robert Penn Warren, the first poet laureate, was also, in 1944–45, a consultant in poetry. Other people who held consultantships were Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, the usual suspects. I was surprised to discover that Archibald MacLeish was never consultant. He would have been nearly perfect, though not as perfect as Carl Sandburg, in whose person and poetry clichés ran as thickly as calories run through cheesecake, who also, somehow, missed out.
The poet laureate of the United States is chosen by the librarian of Congress, who consults previous poets laureate and other poets, which means that the fix is probably in. Poets tend to be clubbier than Chicago aldermen, and quite as artful at awarding one another patronage. Whereas the English poet laureate serves for life, the American laureateship lasts a year, but is sometimes extended to two years. The $35,000 salary for the poet laureate—whose exact title is poet laureate consultant in poetry—is put up by the foundation of Archer M. Huntington, son of one of the four men who laid down the Central Pacific Railroad.
I think it fair to say that one of the first qualifications of an American poet laureate is that he not in any way be dangerous. Amiri Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, was recently canned as poet laureate of New Jersey for writing some fairly insane anti-Semitic verse; and rightly canned, in my view. Let Mr. Baraka write all the anti-Semitic verse he wishes—may he find joy in his Jew-hating, as my people say—but he ought not to be permitted to do so while on the payrolls of the great state of New Jersey.
Allen Ginsberg is a stellar example of someone who could never have been poet laureate. Some years ago I was told about an official award given to Ginsberg in which the master of ceremonies took time out to thank Ginsberg for his courage in coming out so early and so openly as a homosexual at a time when it took real courage to do so, making the way easier for men like him, the master of ceremonies, who wished on this occasion to thank him for all he had done for the cause of gay liberation. Ginsberg, in dinner clothes for this grand occasion, rose to the podium and said, “Thank you, but, after that introduction, I’m not sure whether I am getting this award for my poetry or my cocksucking.” I don’t much like that word, and there isn’t all that much of Ginsberg’s poetry that lights my fire either, but I love this story, because it points up the emptiness of conjoining politics and art.
Somehow poetry and politics are never rightly conjoined. Those of us who have reached a certain age will remember Robert Frost, having agreed to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, white hair flapping in the breeze, fighting strong winds to get his less than considerable vers d’occasion read; because of the weather, it was certainly not heard. A great flop is what it was. One felt that the gods had sent the weather in detestation of this forced alignment of poetry with power.
The current American poet laureateship is marked—marred, is more precise—not only by the kiss of death of being an official job but also by political correctness. As one runs down the list of American poets laureate, the only explanation for certain names appearing there is that they are women or black or otherwise “with the show,” as they say on the carnival grounds. Make the ostensibly sweet bow in the direction of political correctness, and art, like reality in the face of a social science concept, leaves the room. The list of American poets laureate has included the good, the mediocre, and the merely acceptable. But nobody who has uttered any truly heterodox views is asked to play at laureate. Heterodoxy is one of the things serious poetry is, or at least ought to be, about. The poet laureate of the United States should also be the best poet in the country; if he isn’t, then the job is meaningless.
I keep falling back on the word “job,” but does the poet laureate of the United States do any actual work? In England, the poet laureate used to be asked to write poems for official occasions: coronations, deaths of monarchs, and the rest. (Pity that Ted Hughes, who was then poet laureate, wasn’t asked to write about the death of Princess Diana; that would have been a poem of genuine interest.)
The official literature has it that “the [American] laureate gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library’s annual poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States.” The poets laureate are pretty much left alone, “in order [this again from the official literature] to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library.”
The laureates’ “projects” have been varied, though most have had to do with efforts to widen the readership of poetry, which is always thought to be in need of as much widening by way of promotion as it can get. Every laureate his own Gideon, Joseph Brodsky, when he had the job, attempted to place poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms; Gwendolyn Brooks visited lots of elementary schools to talk up the wonders of poetry; Rita Dove did a more exclusively black turn, by bringing together writers to “explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists”; and so on. If I were poet laureate I would put a poem in every pair of pajamas, fortune cookie, and National Hockey League game program published during my tenure. Which is my coarse, jokey-jakey way of saying that poetry cannot really be promoted—only appreciated.
Poetry is caviar—an acquired taste, and not for most people, not even for some highly intelligent people—and I happen to believe it demeans it to sell it as if it were hot dogs. Many of the poets laureate have, I fear, seen the job as calling for slapping on the mustard while moving the dogs along. Even bringing poetry into grammar and high schools is probably a mistake. I am reminded here that Willa Cather, while she was alive, insisted that no school editions of her novels or stories be printed, lest kids be forced to read her under so-called educational conditions and never read her again as adults when they were really ready for her. Sounds smart to me.
Easy to understand the desire to widen the audience for poetry, a warrant for which seems to be written into the job of poet laureate. Every scribbler in every genre longs for a large audience. At a certain point, a writer, if he is lucky, is faced with the decision whether or not to seek that larger audience through the small compromises often required to obtain it. Poets are rarely offered the chance to make such a decision. If one is nutty enough to expect a large audience for one’s poetry, certain demoralization awaits. Besides, at these prices, a poet ought to write and say exactly what he thinks and in precisely the way he thinks best to say it.
Contemporary poets, alas, have prizes instead of readers. The number of poetry prizes in the land is astonishing. The TLS not long ago ran a brief piece on these prizes under the title of “Shock Absorbers for Poets.” Such is their plentitude that one is almost inclined to think contemporary poetry less an art than a charity in need of constant donations. Nor are many of the sums offered trivial: the Wallace Stevens Award ($150,000), the Lilly Prize ($100,000), the Lannan Award ($120,000), and the Griffin ($40,000 Can.). The last named reminds me that an old joke has it that the one thing you never ask a prostitute is if she’ll accept Canadian money, but this, obviously, isn’t a problem for poets.
A funny time for poetry, ours, no doubt about it. While fewer and fewer people seem to be reading poetry, more and more people seem to be teaching both it and the writing of it. Most non-professionals who do read it do so chiefly while in college, and then more or less slowly drop away from it. Many otherwise quite literary people find they cannot—or do not wish to—make time in their reading budget for it. With so much poetry around, Gresham’s relentlessly vicious law kicks in, the bad driving out the good. What’s a poet to do?
What the good poets have always done, I believe, which is to take care of business. Business for the poet is to write as well as possible and leave the job of promoting poetry in a manner sure to vulgarize, if not utterly trivialize, it alone. The least one can do in this regard is, if offered the job of poet laureate of the United States, to turn it down, preferably in a wittily obstreperous way. More money and self-respect is to be earned selling ladies handkerchiefs.