Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday Muse on The Poets Laureate Anthology

I recently purchased The Poets Laureate Anthology (W.W. Norton/Library of Congress, 2010), which collects for the first time in a single volume the work of each of 43 United States Poets Laureate, beginning with W.S. Merwin, predecessor (2010-2011) of newly appointed Poet Laureate Philip Levine, and concluding with Joseph Auslander, the country's first Consultant in Poetry* to the Library of Congress, who was appointed in 1937 and served until 1941. 

Edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, Ph.D., professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence College and former poetry editor at New York Times Book Review, who also contributed the collection's Introduction, the anthology includes a Foreword by Billy Collins, himself the Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. The Foreword is an amusing romp through some of the history of the position and what the laureates have made of it (or not), and offers Collins's own shout-outs of poems that have left him thinking, laughing, or marveling. I especially appreciated his remarks that "these poems were not written to be declaimed to the American public from the balcony of the laureate's office overlooking the Capitol; more likely, they were meant to be uttered quietly to a single reader, or said to no one at all since poems can be what poets say to themselves as they wander from room to room through the houses of their experience."

That Schmidt decided to present the poetry in reverse chronology, so that the most contemporary work is up front, was inspired; after all, it's the voice and language of the contemporary poet with which many of us are most familiar. No matter where the reader decides to start, however, she will be exposed to lyric and narrative poems, poems with rhyme and not, traditional forms and free verse, poems short and long, tender and funny. She'll find in the poems that range over seven decades similar themes — love; loss, grief, and death; nature; place; society and politics — and a balanced representation of each poet's work,  enough of a selection to get a very good impression of the extraordinary range of poetic voices America has produced.

The reader also will find what Schmidt called in one interview her "greatest hits", the poems anyone who reads poetry would expect to see in a collection of work by the Poets Laureate: W.S. Merwin's marvelous three-line "Separation"; Kay Ryan's delightful "Home to Roost"; Donald Hall's matter-of-fact but deeply touching "White Apples"; Elizabeth Bishop's justly praised villanelle "One Art"; Robert Frost's oft-repeated "The Road Not Taken"; Robert Pinksky's "Shirt", a hymn and a memorial both to the workers lost in the infamous Triangle Factory Fire; Robert Lowell's memorable "For the Union Dead"; William Carlos Williams's unforgettable short poem "The Red Wheelbarrow".

From flipping through the contents, or even just glancing at the back cover where all the poets' names are listed, two things become noticeable immediately: the scant number of women represented among our nation's Poets Laureate (just 10 of the 43 are women) and the very few African-Americans ever elevated to the position (two, both women as it turns out, Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks). This is not to quarrel with the volume (appointments are solely the choice of the Librarian of Congress) but simply to hope that before another seventy-plus years go by, the selection of Poets Laureate will reflect the greater diversity of our country by showcasing the stellar contributions to poetry of American women, African-Americans, and poets of Hispanic and Native American origin.

The anthology's brief biographical introductions to each poet deserve noting. Every one has some interesting fact, amusing anecdote, or fascinating background story that the reader is not apt to have come across in the laureates' typical profiles. A few serve as example:

Louise Gluck "is the only laureate who has said that the year in and out of Washington had little impact on her writing life."

✦ In the two years that Randall Jarrell held the post, he wrote only four poems, one of which "The Woman at the Washington Zoo", became his most famous (it's also the title of his collection of poems and translations that won the 1961 National Book Award in poetry).

✦ Robert Lowell, appointed at age 29 to be the sixth Consultant in Poetry, told the Librarian of Congress that the latter's "selection of poets is idiosyncratic. Four or five of the inclusions are absurd."

Maxine Kumin, who had a "hotline" in her home to her friend the poet Anne Sexton, remarked upon her appointment that she must have gotten the job because she was a "very safe, heterosexual, middle-class, middle-aged woman poet, the kind who wasn't going to disgrace anybody." (Her predecessor William Meredith had remarked on the "kind of establishment pattern" he saw in the Librarian's appointments, adding, "I think it should be representative.")

William Meredith, a naval aviator in World War II and the Korean War, condemned the arrest outside the White House (during the Jimmy Carter administration) of nuclear disarmament protesters, compiled a collection of poems for inner-city schoolteachers, and urged Allen Ginsberg's appointment as his successor. (See Maxine Kumin.)

✦ Rita Dove, dubbed the "New Generation laureate", held readings at the Library of Congress by Crown Indian schoolchildren from Montana and used teleconferencing to promote discuss poetry remotely with different schools around the United States.

Allen Tate contributed to the founding of the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress.

✦ The first poet who was a woman appointed to the position, Mona Van Duyn made clear that "she would 'run kicking and screaming in the opposite direction' were she asked to serve a second term." She wasn't; she was succeeded by Rita Dove, who served from 1993 to 1995 and also was, with Louise Gluck and W.S. Merwin, a Special Bicentennial Consultant in Poetry. 

This is a significant and substantial compilation— more than 500 poems — that includes, as well, photos of each poet, notes and sources, permissions and acknowledgments, and an index. Just holding the book in the hands or lap gives reason to understand why it took Schmidt three years to complete it.

Whether you are a poetry reader of long-standing or just taking up poetry, this collection belongs on your shelf. But don't leave it there! Tuck yourself into a big comfortable chair whenever you need a break from social networking and let yourself be awed again by the poems you know well or surprised by the poems you're reading for the first time. 

The anthology is available through the Library of Congress Sales Shop, in book shops nationwide, and online.

* When the position was established in 1937, it was called Consultant in Poetry. In 1986, as a result of a change in law, the position was retitled "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry". 

Poets Laureate are appointed for one- or two-year terms by the Librarian of Congress, whose choice is by merit alone. As Billy Collins points out in his Foreword, no laureate since Robert Frost has been asked to read a poem during a presidential inauguration.


Glynn said...

I bought this at the Contemporary Art Museum when we were in Chicago this past May - and it's sitting patiently, waiting to be read. I also bought a book of poems by Leonard Cohen and a book about the art of Gerhard Richter.

You've inspired me to pull it off the shelf and read it.

S. Etole said...

This looks like a good addition to our reading.

Anonymous said...

well, there it is! sounds good.

drew said...

I had no idea this book existed. Thanks for sharing. I'm adding it to my list of books-to-buy. Many thanks!

Monica Sharman said...

I've checked this out of the library several times! I especially appreciated the bios.