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?"

Originally Published: June 23rd, 2008

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

  1. June 24, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    The late Joseph Brodsky was given to claiming that he only wrote one couplet during his entire gloomy tour as PLOTUS:
    I sit at my desk,
    My life's grotesque.
    Alors, why on earth would any poet in her/his right mind even *want* such a position? –Oh wait, I just answered my own question.
    Bravo, by the way, for defending Tennessee (home state, of course, to the likes of Randall Jarrell, Charles Wright, John Crowe Ransom, and James Agee--who would have taken a mighty dim view of such a cheap shot at the "uneducated").
    PS--are we misspelling Robert's name as "Pinksy" on purpose? Because that's how the Man from the US misprounced it? The original link has disintegrated....

  2. June 25, 2008
     Travis Nichols

    No slight of the Volunteer state intended. The McCain Town Hall meeting took place in Tennessee, so the man who asked was a Tennessee Man. All of that was clearer in the original story, which I didn't quite convey as clearly as I could have. Apologies. Here's another link: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2008/06/03/poetry_question_stumps_mccain.html

  3. June 26, 2008
     D. A. Powell

    Hey TN,
    I wasn't accusing you of being sudophobic. I just thought it odd that Tennessee was being singled out, and I assumed the singling was being done by the news agency.
    Reading the original article, though, I see that it only identifies the man who asked the poet laureate question as "a former Iraq veteran and poet" (how does one becomes a "former" veteran), but it doesn't identify him as a Tennessee man. He could have been a native of any other state or territory. Why not assume he was from Massachusetts?

  4. June 26, 2008
     Travis Nichols

    Right, well the original link I looked at which is now dead identified him as Tennessean. Perils of collage reporting, no doubt. "Give Tennessee Credit for Music," sang Carl Perkins.