US wants a laureate, but is that poetic justice?
IS a poet without honor in his own country? Would some poets want it any other way?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.