American Laurels: The Poets Laureate Anthology

April 21, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 4 5 min read

coverAs a volume in the cultural history of American poetry, there’s no doubt that Elizabeth Hun Schmidt‘s The Poets Laureate Anthology is a valuable text. For starters, it’s the only book of its kind: The collection offers substantial (but not overwhelming) selections from the 47 poets who have served and continue to serve in the only official position for an artist in United States. Perhaps with a mind to easing readers into our official poetic past, Schmidt has organized the anthology in reverse chronological order: She begins with W.S. Merwin, our current laureate, appointed in 2010, and works backwards to the now little-remembered Joseph Auslander, the first American laureate, then called the “Consultant in Poetry,” who was served from 1937 to 1941 (some call him dusty, but “Severus to Tiberius Greatly Ennuyé” is as fine a poem as you are likely to read).  The work of every laureate is deftly introduced by a short, succinct biographical essay that describes his or her intellectual and aesthetic temperament.

Whether the collection’s aesthetic value matches its cultural and historical value is another question altogether, and a question worth considering in the midst of this, our National Poetry Month. If you’re an avid reader of poetry, you might feel the glaring absence of some of the most important names in American poetry of the last (almost) 100 years: Allen Ginsburg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, Countee Cullen, Ogden Nash, Robert Bly, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Ezra Pound, Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Robert Creeley, Maya Angelou, and John Berryman.  You’ll find none of these among the laureates, though any sense  of American poetry formed without them would be impoverished.

Of course, you do get Robert Frost, Robert Hass, Robert Hayden, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Joseph Brodsky, Mark Strand, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. This is an accomplished crowd, certainly, if by and large, a rather safe, rather white, rather male crowd. Of course, the institution of the national laureate has a long history of not always picking one for the ages. A classic example of this from across the pond: Colley Cibber. Cibber became the poet laureate of England during the reign of George II. Have you ever heard of Colley Cibber? Read his poems? I thought not. They’re dreadful and should be avoided. Yet Cibber reigned as laureate instead of Alexander Pope (at the height of his poetic career when Cibber was crowned), largely because Cibber wrote some thumpingly patriotic/jingoistic plays that the not-very-artistically-inclined king managed to remember.  Which is to say that you may find a Cibber or two of your own among the members of this anthology.

So, another question that Schmidt’s anthology raises is, what does it mean to be a state-sponsored poet and what does it take to become one?  Sure, it means a $35,000 stipend (I’d always thought more), a few readings and a beautiful office in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, but what does it mean to be “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,” as the Library of Congress describes the role of the laureate its librarian selects?  Sounds rather grand and magical—but also, perhaps, a little ridiculous or impossible too.

Schmidt’s answer to this is her introduction, which offers a short history of the fraught relationship between poetry and the state, beginning with Plato‘s banishing of poets from his ideal Republic, and ending with Robert Penn Warren‘s declaration that he would not be writing “odes on the death of the President’s Cat,” when the official title of his position was charged from “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” to “poet laureate consultant in poetry” in 1986. And, indeed, American laureates have never been required to write odes or hymns on state occasions (as British laureates still are)—though some have chosen to put their poetic shoulders to the wheel of state: our first laureate Joseph Auslander, for example, voluntarily used his poetry to raise money for war bonds during World War II.

Schmidt’s take on American poetry and the office of laureate is that Thomas Jefferson‘s Declaration of Independence gave Americans an exceptional relationship to the poet’s voice—to one man’s voice speaking out in beautiful language: “Our very sense of state emerged from the deft and memorable use of language and the compelling sound of one man’s voice on the page.”  What Schmidt implies is that poetry is an imperative, a foundational aspect of our national character, and a private means of declaring independence: “…a poet’s very vocation, whether she or he winds up laureled or not, can be seen as a declaration of independence.” From this perspective, the office of laureate is a figurehead for the American character: its self-assertion, strength of voice and conviction, multiplicity (though Schmidt also acknowledges that the ranks of the bay wearers are still very white and male), its commitment to individuality.

As for the poetry, there are a lot of old favorites here: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Fire and Ice” (recently given a cameo in Twilight: Eclipse—and they say poetry is dead!), and Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  Schmidt has also inclined toward the inclusion of explicitly political poems (usually poems of warning or critique, though not always). These include Mona Van Duyn‘s “For William Clinton, President Elect,” Joseph Brodsky‘s “To the President-elect” and “Once More by the Potomac,” William Meredith‘s “A Mild-Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House,” Robert Hass‘ “Bush’s War,” Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” and Frost’s “The Gift Outright.” In this aspect, the anthology also contains within itself a sub-anthology of American political poetry (again, of course, some of our great political poetry isn’t by laureates, Ginsburg’s “Howl” and “America,” for example, but there more to political poetry than the Beats, as is sometimes forgotten). These poems prompt the old question of whether and when and how politics and poetry should intersect (and the nice thing about an anthology is that you get to decide for yourself).

One of Schmidt’s other pronounced editorial taste is for ars poetica type poems, poems about the making and reading of poetry: Billy Collins‘ “Introduction to Poetry,” Meredith’s “A Major Work,” Josephine Jacobsen‘s “Gentle Reader,” Stephen Spender‘s “Word,” and Mark Strand‘s “Eating Poetry.” In an anthology of public poets–poets who are in some way connected to the citizenry or charged with their poetic enlightenment–this is a particularly deft editorial choice. These poems give the anthology an approachable aspect: They are teaching poems, poems that are simultaneously poems and instructions on how to read poetry–and how not to: Collins describes ill-advised readers of poetry tying the poem to a chair to “torture a confession out of it,” and “beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”  This isn’t the way: As Collins and Josephine Jacobsen both explain, you have to let the poem have its way with you (not the other way around). For Jacobsen in “Gentle Reader,” an encounter with a good poem seems hardly distinguishable from a night with Casanova: “O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;/this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow.” And for Mark Strand, in “Eating Poetry,” the poetic immersion leads to something like a werewolf’s metamorphosis. After a day’s reading and writing in the library, he’s “a new man,” half-feral; and even as he terrifies the librarian, he delights himself: “I snarl at her and bark,/I romp with joy in the bookish dark.”

If you thought poetry was tame, the stuff of effete university men or Victorian ladies, be forewarned: Not among the American laureates (at least, not all of them—a few have not aged well). Many of the included poets and poems go a long way toward proving Hun’s provocative and interesting claim that among American poets, poetry inevitably offers a personal means of making a declaration of independence.

This is a thoughtful, important collection and whether you’re a patriot or a poet or a reader of poetry (or some combination of these), this anthology deserves a place in your library.

All quotations from The Poets Laureate Anthology, published by W.W. Norton in association with the Library of Congress. “Introduction to Poetry” copyright Billy Collins. “Gentle Reader” copyright Josephine Jacobsen. “Eating Poetry” copyright Mark Strand.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. I need this book to be a better poetry lover/human being. There’s a wait-list for this book through the Los Angeles Public Library, which is good, b/c it means people are reading this sucker, but bad because I want to be reading it right now too! Note to LAPL: Procure more copies. Note to Personal Checking Account: All of a sudden start having more disposable income so I can buy poetry anthologies on whims.

  2. No mention of Howard Nemerov? Anyone interested in beautifully crafted understated metaphor with a wry sense of humor needs to seek his poetry out.

    Here is a small sample:


    Flaubert wanted to write a novel
    About nothing. It was to have no subject
    And be sustained upon the style alone,
    Like the Holy Ghost cruising above
    The abyss, or like the little animals
    In Disney cartoons who stand upon a branch
    That breaks, but do not fall
    Till they look down. He never wrote that novel,
    And neither did he write another one
    That would have been called La Spirale,
    Wherein the hero’s fortunes were to rise
    In dreams, while his walking life disintegrated.

    Even so, for these two books
    We thank the master. They can be read,
    With difficulty, in the spirit alone,
    Are not so wholly lost as certain works
    Burned at Alexandria, flooded at Florence,
    And are never taught at universities.
    Moreover, they are not deformed by style,
    That fire that eats what it illuminates.

  3. This is an excellent anthology…………but pricey and very porly edited. An erata page is inserted that notes in one of Billy Collins’ poems question marks were inserted where there should have been dashes. The final stanzas of one of William Meredith’s poem were omitted. Worse, some of the biographical material is incorrect. For example, William Carlos Williams is said to have lived in Paterson, New Jersey, a poor mill city while he actually lived in a the small, middle to upper class and mostly residential town ( no industry, but merchants and storekeepers…no bars except in the Elks Club and VFW, a weekly newspaper named The Rutherford Republican) of Rutherford, New Jersey. This fact is important because where he lived and worked influenced how he viewed what he wrote about. Williams came from a well-to-do family but had great compassion for the poor and the sick he found in the city of Paterson (amongst other places) but he never suffered poverty except in his mind and heart….so much so that his epic is titled “Paterson.”
    To honor its content and its $39.95 price, this anthology deserved better editing.

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