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A Brief History Of: The Poet Laureate

2 minute read
Kate Pickert

On July 17, Kay Ryan became the 16th U.S. poet Laureate, one of the most coveted positions in American letters. Yet when Senator Spark Matsunaga, himself an amateur poet, pushed Congress to create the post in 1985, the American literary community was appalled. With its roots in 17th century England, where the laureate still writes occasional verses marking royal births and weddings, the title was one that few American poets rushed to adopt. “It’s in the field of politics,” scoffed Allen Ginsberg. With artists serving renewable eight-month terms, the U.S. “may be down to third-rate poets pretty quickly,” quipped A.R. Ammons. “I don’t think Robert Frost would have liked it,” said the Atlantic’s poetry editor of the man whose reading at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inauguration symbolized–incorrectly–the position for many Americans. (Frost held an earlier title, Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, in 1958-59.)

The first appointee had no intention of writing odes to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Robert Penn Warren said in 1986 that he “couldn’t write to order” even if asked, and he spent his tenure overseeing the library’s poetry collection. Subsequent laureates have used the position to broaden the reach of poetry in America. Joseph Brodsky championed poetry in public places; Robert Hass started an annual student competition; Billy Collins launched a website with a poem for every day of the school year. Ryan isn’t yet sure what she’s going to do but notes that she is constitutionally “incapable of saying what people expect me to say.” Her predecessors would have approved.

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