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So What's a Poet Laureate, Anyway?

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This past week, we learned that Tracy K. Smith, one of our favorite contemporary poets, was named the United States Poet Laureate. As we were reading about her plans for the prestigious office, which include spreading poetry across the country – “where literary festivals don’t always go” – we started to wonder, what exactly does the Poet Laureate do? How is one chosen? And how did this position even come to be? We found the answers to all these questions, and more, from our friends over at The Library of Congress. Here’s all you ever wanted to know about the U.S. Poet Laureate but were afraid to ask:

 The Librarian of Congress Chooses the Poet Laureate

The Poet Laureate – whose official title is “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” – is selected to serve an eight month term from October to May by the Librarian of Congress, who is currently Dr. Carla Hayden. That term can then be renewed for another year, but traditionally, poets only serve two consecutive terms at maximum. Often, the Librarian of Congress will consult with the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, poetry experts, or even the current or former Poets Laureate to come up with candidates for nomination, but ultimately, the Librarian is the sole decider. However, per the Poetry and Literature Center, the public is allowed to make suggestions for who should be the next Poet Laureate by contacting the Library of Congress directly.

The Poet Laureate Isn’t Required to Do Much – And That’s a Good Thing

While Poets Laureate throughout history have taken initiative to encourage reading, writing, and love of poetry across the nation, The Library of Congress doesn’t stipulate that the Poet Laureate necessarily needs to do any of that. In fact, the only formal requirements of the poet laureate are two readings – at the beginning and end of their term – and to name and introduce the recipients of the Witter Bynner Fellowship, another Library of Congress poetry prize. The Library of Congress deliberately leaves the duties of the office non-specific, so that each incoming laureate has the freedom to do what he or she wishes. Many recent Poets Laureate have created new ways for poetry to reach the American public, such as Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project” or Billy Collins’ “Poetry 180.”

The “Consultant in Poetry” Position Dates Back to 1937...

...But the “Poet Laureate” title only applies to those who’ve held the office after 1986. That’s because the position was originally called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” and the duties of the position were closer to that of a librarian than a poet. Essentially, the consultants in poetry would advise the Library of Congress on the maintenance of its poetry collections and serve as a liaison between the Library, poets, and researchers. So technically, Robert Frost and Gwendolyn Brooks were not poets laureate, but consultants in poetry.

Poet Laureate Is a Paying Job – But Not By The Government

Poets Laureate receive a $35,000 annual stipend plus $5,000 to cover travel expenses, but that doesn’t come out of your taxes. The position is endowed by a gift from Archer M. Huntington, who established the original consultant in poetry position. Huntington was a noted philanthropist, who also founded the Hispanic Society of America and donated his mansion to be the headquarters of the National Academy in Carnegie Hill.

Sources

Armenti, Peter. What Do Poet Laureates Do? From the Catbird Seat, the Library of Congress.

Armenti, Peter. How is the Poet Laureate Selected? From the Catbird Seat, the Library of Congress.

About the Position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Library of Congress.

United States Poet Laureate: A Guide to Online Resources. Library of Congress.

Rosenberg, Zoe. National Academy Museum's Fifth Avenue Home Hits the Market for $120MCurbed.

The Hispanic Museum and Library: About Us.

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