US wants a laureate, but is that poetic justice?

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

IS a poet without honor in his own country? Would some poets want it any other way?

On Wednesday, Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin is expected to name a ``poet laureate'' to succeed the $35,000-a-year poetry consultant to the library, adding some new duties and a new title to an office that has been in existence for almost 50 years and has been held by the likes of Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren.

The whole thing strikes several distinguished poets and editors as somehow, well, unpoetic. Not the job, per se, but the title.

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The idea of poet laureate has been championed since 1963 by Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii, himself an amateur poet. In December he succeeded in passing legislation that confers the title of laureate upon the consultant and establishes a $10,000 fund for a one-time poetry program. (The consultant's salary and $5,000 travel allowance are paid out of private endowments.)

The poet laureate, like the poetry consultant, will be appointed for one year, with a mutually renewable option of another year, to essentially the same duties as the poetry consultant -- advising the library on acquisitions, opening and closing its literary season, and presiding over literary events -- but will also be expected to write one major poem and attend some ceremonial functions.

To some poets, for whom there is much in a name, the change of titles may be upping the ante a little too far.

The word ``consultant'' sounds ``nice and modest, doesn't it?'' says the current consultant, Gwendolyn Brooks, a very likely candidate to be named laureate. On the other hand, she thinks the dictionary definition of poet laureate (``the official or most respected poet of any specific nation, region, etc.'') sounds ``frightening.''

``I didn't think a crown was a particularly American symbol,'' complains The Atlantic's poetry editor, Peter Davison, referring to the wreath from which the title derived. ``I don't think George Washington would have liked it . . . I don't think Robert Frost would have liked it. It's killing with kindness.''

``Most of the real poets are out of office -- and for that reason have the opportunity to be real poets,'' observes respected poet A. R. Ammons. Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry magazine, add: ``It's a pretentious title to be carrying around. Are we trying to play catch-up with England?''

But Senator Matsunaga contends the laureate is a perfectly democratic and American idea: ``I've long held to the view that if the lessons of human experience are put into verse, we might better learn and remember them,'' he maintained during a recent telephone interview. ``The experiences of a democratic nation ought to be put into verse. . . . Of all the industrialized nations, the United States is the only one without a laureate. China has one.''

In England, where the office originated in 1616, when Ben Jonson was granted a pension by King James I, poet laureate is a lifetime honor conferred by the crown on an individual who exemplifies something quintessentially British and poetic; and the laureate is encouraged, though not required, to write odes for royal births and weddings and state occasions.

The American poet laureate may also be called upon to write verse for state occasions. John Broderick, assistant librarian for research services, acknowledges that the poet ``could be requested'' to write verse about deregulation at the Federal Trade Commission. But he says the legislation empowers the librarian of Congress to stanch a flood of requests from bureaucrats and political pressure from a first family.

So far poetry consultants, like Gwendolyn Brooks, have been very active in reaching out to schools and civic groups to help kindle poetic talents and in holding poetry workshops. ``It took a great deal of my energy,'' recalls Maxine Kumin, who says she brought a horse to Washington (``that kept me sane'') during her 1981-82 tenure in the job. What she and others have made of the job has earned it the respect of many American poets. The list of those who have held the office is characterized as ``distinguished'' by most observers. These same observers point out, however, that a poet laureate will have to be even more distinguished.

``The first appointment will be a difficult one,'' Mr. Broderick concedes. ``You're not going to please everyone in a matter as subjective as excellence in poetic achievement.'' But he adds that the selections will ``speak for themselves.''

Even though this is the first time the country has named a poet laureate, many states have them. Miss Brooks, besides being poetry consultant, is Illinois's poet laureate, a seat once held by Carl Sandburg; Robert Frost continues posthumously to hold that title in Vermont; and Connecticut named James Merrill.

So the idea of a poet laureate has an American precedent. But on a national level, there is the added complication of trying to find a poet who represents the pluralistic schools of American poetry.

``There's no such animal,'' Brooks says.

``It makes sense to name a poet laureate in a tiny country with a homogenous culture, like England,'' adds Helen Vendler, a highly respected poet who also teaches at Harvard University. But she says the sprawling diversity of America's cultural geography casts doubt on the ``choose-one model.''

In fact, the United States will be choosing a lot more than one poet during the course of the next few decades, an idea that brings further scorn from some critics, who think naming a US poet laureate every year or two resembles the Miss America pageant.

``In 52 years, you could have 52 poets laureate,'' Peter Davison points out. ``It's like the Book-of-the-Month Club. There haven't been 52 great poets in the history of the United States.''

``A lot of third-rate poets would like it, and you may be down to third-rate poets pretty quickly,'' A. R. Ammons quips.

``The whole idea is not to set someone up for life,'' Mr. Matsunaga contends, ``but to give other poets an opportunity to aspire to the position. This is an encouragement of the creative arts. The thing that survives civilization is the arts; and poetry is an art.''

Finding a candidate to fill this role will be the problem of the librarian of Congress, who makes the choice on his own, after consulting people inside and outside the library, a process that raises eyebrows.

``It's a little odd,'' says David Bonanno, editor of American Poetry Review. ``In the long run it would make better sense to have a system where some poets take part in the decision.''

``This is obviously of the world and not of Olympus or Parnassus,'' complains Allen Ginsberg. ``It's in the field of politics . . . which is still all show biz and theater scripts. The last great man nominated [as poetry consultant] was Williams Carlos Williams. But he was blocked by politicians, because he was branded a left-wing radical. It was a humiliating experience for him.''

Be that as it may, America will soon have a poet laureate to represent the muse in the halls of government and the national arena.

To which Maxine Kumin comments: ``We should look at this on the bright side.'' We should all remember that the new title is ``an honorific,'' and there are precious few of those conferred on American poets.

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