Poetry News

Demystifying the Poet Laureate's Duties

By Harriet Staff

Sure, things get heated whenever a new US Poet Laureate is appointed. It makes for a wild week! Then after that... well, yeah. Still, have you ever wondered what the hell the position actually entails? Wonder no more, friends—the Library of Congress lays it all out for us.

First off, taxpayers are not footing the bill:

One bit of confusion is the widespread belief that the laureateship is funded with taxpayers’ money. In fact, the position is maintained through a privately funded endowment made to the Library in 1936 by the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. Another uncertainty surrounds the official title of the Poet Laureate. From 1937 to 1985, the title was “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”; in 1985, an act of Congress changed the title to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.”

But let's get down the brass tacks:

The responsibilities of Poets Laureate during their terms are not well understood because there are few formal requirements. Essentially, the requirements are three:

Poets Laureate must give a reading or presentation to inaugurate their term
Poets Laureate must select the two annual Witter Bynner Fellows and introduce them at their Library of Congress reading
Poets Laureate must give a reading or presentation to close their term

Outside of these major responsibilities, Poets Laureate largely are given the freedom to shape the position based on their interests and inclinations. Some Laureates assume a highly visible role as a national advocate for poetry, while others eschew the spotlight and focus on their writing.

When the position’s title changed in 1985 to include the phrase “Poet Laureate,” the visibility and popularity of the position greatly increased, and more emphasis was placed on it serving, as Librarian of Congress James H. Billington is fond of saying, as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” To this end, many Poets Laureate have developed programs and projects designed to increase the appreciation of poetry among the American public. Joseph Brodsky (1991-92), for instance, initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms. Rita Dove (1993-95) brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists, and also championed children’s poetry and jazz with poetry events. Robert Hass (1995-97) sponsored a major conference on nature writing, “Watershed,” which continues today as a national poetry competition, “River of Words,” for elementary and high school students.

The development of large-scale poetry projects by U.S. Poets Laureate is a relatively recent phenomenon and coincides with the growth of the Internet as a medium through which poetry can be read, distributed, and discussed by a national audience.

For all this and more, go here.

Originally Published: February 9th, 2012