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John Tranter

The United States Poet Laureate —
some background information (1991)



People often misunderstand two things about the position of US Poet Laureate. First, the position is not that of the Librarian of Congress; it is officially titled ‘consultant in poetry’, and is a separate post. And it is funded by public donation, not by US government funds. This article is a little out of date — it was commissioned by the National Library of Australia in 1991 — but it may be of some interest to Jacket’s readers.


Associated with the Library of Congress in Washington is the Poetry Office, overseen by the Assistant Librarian for Research Services. [Note 1] The Coolidge Auditorium and the Whittall Pavilion, on the ground floor of the Jefferson Building, are the venues for readings, conferences and other gatherings. The Manuscript Division in the nearby Madison Building houses important research material.
      The first public poetry reading in the Library’s history occurred in the late 1890s, when the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who served books from the stacks — which he likened to a prison in one of his poems — read from his work in a program for the blind. Another black poet did not give a public reading at the Library until 1962; though many hundreds of poetry readings, conferences, drama readings and panel discussions have been held there and in schools and colleges around Washington under the auspices of the Poetry Office, often with the strong support of the Whittall Foundation and the Bollingen Foundation.  
      Perhaps the most salient task of the Library in the area of living literature is to coordinate (but not to fund) the position of Consultant in Poetry. The Chair of Poetry, as it was called originally, was created by the generous gift of a fund from the philanthropist Archer M.Huntington in 1936, and first filled in 1937. In the sixty years that followed it was occupied for an average of one or two years each by a succession of forty poets. [For a detailed list, see Note 2.] Except for the British poet Stephen Spender, all have been American-born American citizens. Though the Consultant is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, the stipend derives from funds donated to the Library of Congress by private citizens, so it’s not a salaried government position.


Archer M. Huntington







Archer M. Huntington (1870–1955)

Image courtesy Library of Congress


     
      Apart from Huntington, the other main patron of poetry at the Library of Congress was Mrs Gertrude Whittall, who lived to the age of ninety-seven, attending Library events regularly until two months before her death in 1965. She made many donations to the Library of Congress for the purposes of supporting and encouraging music and literature, including (in 1935) a set of Stradivari stringed instruments, Tourte bows and the sum of $100,000 (a million dollars in today’s money) to maintain them in good playing condition — they were meant to be used, not looked at. This extraordinary woman donated two and a half million dollars altogether, including nearly a million dollars to literature. During her lifetime her beneficence was not directly connected with the Chair of Poetry, though after her death a generous bequest enabled the Consultants’ salaries to be maintained on a level realistically on a par with academic salaries.
      The duties expected of the occupant of the Poetry Chair at the Library of Congress have varied from time to time, and have never been written out as a job description. Generally they involve the Consultant in the following:

Work on her or his own poetry; survey the existing collections of poetry and recommend purchases; correspond with authors and collectors with a view to gifts; confer with scholars and poets and answer enquiries from the public; compile occasional bibliographies; plan, arrange and supervise the recordings of poets reading their work; and (from 1943 to 1945 only) edit a quarterly library magazine. (In 1966 a gathering of ten past and present Consultants gave a cold reception to the idea that the Consultant should work on compiling annotated bibliographies, anthologies or an annual of the best poems of the year, all of which had been suggested ‘in order to give the Consultant something to do.’)

      Different Consultants have approached the job according to their temperaments. While Robert Frost occupied the Chair in a series of brief appearances (towards the end of his life) he took the opportunity to call press conferences, to address Congressmen and their families, and to testify before Congressional subcommittees. He read a poem at President Kennedy’s inauguration. Others have been less in the public eye, though perhaps more hard-working day to day. When James Dickie occupied the Chair (in 1966-68) he devised a graceful letter declining to criticise unsolicited poems: ‘I do not criticise unsolicited manuscripts, because I believe that often an external evaluation of a poet’s work distracts him from his necessary spontaneity, and from the pleasure which he may derive from the creation of his work.’
      Perhaps the most well-known Consultant was Robert Lowell, who took the Chair in 1947, when he was only 30 years old. That year was a good one for him — he received the Pulitzer Prize in American Poetry, an award of $1,000 from the Academy of American Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship of $2,500. He was invited to spend the summer at Yaddo, a writers colony, and was offered teaching work at the University of Iowa and at the University of North Carolina. Life magazine devoted a feature article to the photogenic young poet, and he received an eager inquiry from a Hollywood film producer, wanting to know if he could act. All this as well as the Chair of Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, worth $5,000 (in today’s money [1991], more than $50,000).
      The Chair has had its share of controversy. Two incidents stand out.

Ezra Pound
In 1948 the Fellows in American Letters at the Library of Congress — a group of literary figures who advised the Librarian on his choice of Consultant — gave the inaugural $1,000 Bollingen Prize in Poetry to Ezra Pound’s collection The Pisan Cantos. The poems were largely written while the poet was incarcerated by the American Army in a detention camp in Pisa, Italy, accused of treason because of his broadcasts from Italy during the Second World War. There was a furious outcry in the press, and inquiries in Congress. One Congressman (James T.Patterson, of Connecticut) asked rhetorically ‘Should we encourage the activities in literature of moral lepers?’ The result was a Congressional resolution to the effect that the Library of Congress should abstain from giving prizes or making awards. It was to be forty years before the Joint Committee gave the Library approval for the resumption of prizes — in 1990 James Merrill won the $10,000 biennial Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. (The prize is a memorial to the late Mrs Bobbitt, who was the sister of the late President Johnson.)

William Carlos Williams
The proposed appointment of the old and ailing William Carlos Williams in the early 1950s was equally problematic. He may have been one of the most famous and widely-respected poets in the country, but he was investigated by the FBI for Communist sympathies, the investigation was halted, his appointment was cancelled, then he was told by the Librarian of Congress that he had been appointed to the job again effective May 15, 1953 ‘or as soon thereafter as loyalty and security procedures are successfully completed.’ Among the ‘procedures’, Williams had to be fingerprinted at his local police station, an experience he considered an indignity (many other Consultants went through this extraordinary ritual without complaint). Time ran out, and Williams was never appointed. The Times Literary Supplement mentioned the matter, and a Washington Post editorial called the affair ‘surprising, shocking and distressing’ and quoted the critic John Barkham, ‘Williams is the concentrated essence of Americanism in everything he says and does’, and the poet himself, ‘For heavens’ sake, what kind of country is this?’  
      The calibre of the Consultants seems to have varied gradually over time. They’ve grown older, and somewhat less consequential, in recent decades.  In the first thirty years, among the 16 Consultants who held the position from 1937 to 1970, the average age was under 48 years (this includes Robert Frost, who when he took up the post was in his mid-eighties.) The names include some major, even great poets — Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, Stephen Spender.
      Among the eleven Consultants who held the position from 1970 till 1985, the average age was 63 years — in effect, a jump from middle age to old age — and in my opinion there are few great poets on this list.
      The period of change — the early seventies — was notable for the waning of the influence of other poets on the decision-making process. The choice of Consultant was always the prerogative of the Librarian of Congress. From the mid-1940s to the 1970s, he (it was always a man) called on the advice of a varying group of from eight to ten poets and other writers as Fellows of the Library of Congress in American Letters with open-ended terms of appointment, later reorganised as honorary Consultants in American Letters with fixed three-year terms. In 1979 a twenty-five-person Council of Scholars, representing a spectrum of academic fields and disciplines, took their place, charged with advising the Librarian on many other matters as well. It can be assumed that literary matters came low on their agenda.
      In 1954 Quincy Mumford, the Director of the Cleveland Public Library and president-elect of the American Library Association, had been appointed Librarian of Congress by President Eisenhower. He was advised in matters relating to the Chair of Poetry by Roy Basler, an English teacher, appointed in 1952 to the position of Chief of the General Reference and Bibliography Division, and a man keenly interested in the work of the Poetry Chair. They worked together for some twenty years, and both retired in December 1974. Their successors would not be so involved with the world of living literature.
      In 1975 Daniel Boorstin, who’d been senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution, was appointed Librarian. The American Library Association (on the Fourth of July, of all dates) opposed his appointment because his ‘background, however distinguished it may be, does not include demonstrated leadership and administrative qualities which constitute basic and essential characteristics necessary in the Librarian of Congress.’ In other words, he was a historian, not a librarian. They complained in vain, and Boorstin was appointed.
      In 1970 Nancy Galbraith succeeded Phyllis Armstrong as Special Assistant for Poetry, a library staff position charged with helping organise the Consultant’s office and duties on a permanent basis, and she’s been there ever since, no doubt with a strong advisory role to play. She’d become the Special Assistant’s assistant in 1965, and worked her way up. Unlike the unhappy William Carlos Williams, she had no problems about ‘loyalty and security procedures’ — she originally worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
      Whatever the reasons, and they must have been complex, the drift towards elderly respectability was noted in a memo to the Librarian from the outgoing Consultant William Meredith in mid-1979, who urged Allen Ginsberg as his replacement in 1980. ‘Looking back over the last 13 appointments, since Robert Frost [1958–59], I see a kind of Establishment pattern, of which I am perhaps a good example. [Meredith was then sixty years old himself.] As visible as this position is, here and abroad, I think it ought to be representative. The excellence of Ginsberg’s work is pretty much agreed on now. His role as a social critic and prophet has run its course, as far as being radically offensive to many. He has become a responsible member of such organizations as the American Institute of Arts and Letters...’ But his efforts to ginger up the job were in vain, and the next appointment went to Maxine Kumin, who was in her late fifties. Meredith considered her stigmatised with the same ‘Establishment respectability’ as himself.
      At least thirty-four American states have a state poet laureate. The positions are often honorary, and for terms varying from a year to life.
      For over twenty years since the early 1960s, Senator Spark M.Matsunaga of Hawaii had introduced a bill to Congress at every possible opportunity designed to establish the position of national Poet Laureate. Senator Matsunaga came from an impoverished Japanese immigrant family, and he’d been a labourer, school-teacher, soldier (he served in Western Europe, and was twice wounded and decorated for bravery), lawyer and finally Congressman. His motives in this heroic effort remain obscure, though he wrote occasional poetry himself. Finally he was successful; the position of Consultant in Poetry was changed to that of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 1986, when the program had been running for fifty years. The first Laureate was the 80-year-old Robert Penn Warren, who had served in the Chair of Poetry forty-five years before, followed by Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov (who had served in 1963), and (the present Laureate [in 1991]) Mark Strand.
      Some veteran Consultants regarded the transformation of the Chair to the Laureateship as a misfortune; some thought it harmless, and a good idea. To some critics, the danger lay in government intrusion; specifically, the authorisation of funds with which the National Endowment for the Arts may sponsor some nature of public program by the Poet Laureate Consultant. The Act that established funding for poetry projects states:

‘The Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, with the advice of the National Council on the Arts, shall annually sponsor a program at which the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry will present a major work or the work of other distinguished poets. [....] There are authorized to be appropriated to the National Endowment for the Arts $10,000 for the fiscal year 1987 and for each succeeding fiscal year ending prior to October 1, 1990, for the purpose of carrying out this subsection.’

Such Federal funding would perhaps deprive the Chair and the Whittall reading series of an advantageous status transcending the bureaucracy — a status supported only by the benefactions of the private donors. On many occasions in the past, the Librarian had pacified taxpayers irate at some seeming political or sexual indecency in the published work of a proposed Consultant by pointing out that the position was not funded by taxpayers’ money. That arm’s-length principle would no longer apply.
      The position had not previously obliged the holder to write to order; now it was felt that government officials could order odes by the yard from the Poet Laureate. It was feared that the new position embodied unfortunate assumptions about poetry; that it would be seen as a vehicle for patriotic sentiment and a booster to the American spirit.
      Another criticism related to the British Laureateship, which was a regal and a lifetime appointment. How could a Laureate properly be replaced every year or two by a group of bureaucrats?
      Whatever arguments or achievements the future may bring, the Consultant’s position is important for the way in which it has transformed the role of the Library of Congress, which in relation to poetry had been custodial up till 1937: it had merely preserved what was available. From then on, with the support of Librarians of Congress and massive private benefaction, it became an important active agent, even a principal vehicle of the living American poetic tradition.

— John Tranter, San Francisco, 27 February, 1991


[Note 1] For information about the history of the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, I am indebted to the book Poetry’s Catbird Seat (The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987), by William McGuire, US Government Printing Office, 1988. I have quoted from the work extensively; though opinions expressed are my own. It is available from the Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540.

[Note 2] Generally the Consultants in Poetry have been appointed for one or two years. From 1937 they have been: 1937 Joseph Auslander, 1941 vacant, 1943 Allen Tate, 1944 Robert Penn Warren, 1945 Louise Bogan, 1946 Karl Shapiro, 1947 Robert Lowell, 1948 Léonie Adams, 1949 Elizabeth Bishop, 1950 Conrad Aiken, 1952 vacant (William Carlos Williams was appointed in 1952 but did not serve), 1956 Randall Jarrell, 1958 Robert Frost, 1959 Richard Eberhart, 1961 Louis Untermeyer, 1963 Howard Nemerov, 1965 Stephen Spender, 1966 James Dickey, 1968 William Jay Smith, 1970 William Stafford, 1971 Josephine Jacobsen, 1973 Daniel Hoffman, 1974 Stanley Kunitz, 1976 Robert Hayden, 1978 William Meredith, 1981 Maxine Kumin, 1982 Anthony Hecht, 1984 Robert Fitzgerald (appointed but unable to serve because of illness; Reed Whittemore was interim Consultant), 1985 Gwendolyn Brooks, 1986 Robert Penn Warren (now with the title Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry), 1987 Richard Wilbur, 1988 Howard Nemerov, 1990 Mark Strand, 1991 Joseph Brodsky, 1992 Mona Van Duyn, 1993 Rita Dove, 1995 Robert Hass, 1997 Robert Pinsky (1997–2000, first to serve three consecutive terms). Special Bicentennial Consultants, 1999–2000: Rita Dove, Louise Glück, and W.S. Merwin. Stanley Kunitz, 2000–2001; Billy Collins, 2001–2002.

Photo credit: William Carlos Williams, copyright © Poetry/Rare Books Collection, SUNY Buffalo



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