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American Laurels: The Poets Laureate Anthology

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As 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.

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