Confessions of a Poet Laureate
It never crossed my mind that I would become the poet laureate of the United States. The day I received the call from the Library of Congress, I was carrying a bag of groceries from the car to the house when the phone rang. They didn’t beat around the bush, but told me straight out that this was an honor and not a job they were offering to me. Of course, I was stunned, and without letting the groceries out of my hand, told them that I needed to think about it for a while and that I would call them back tomorrow. My first thought was, who needs this?
I’d heard about the endless reading tours of previous laureates, the elaborate projects they had devised and administered to make poetry more popular in United States, and none of it appealed to me very much. There’s a good reason why I have lived in a small village in New Hampshire for the last thirty-seven years. I like to hear roosters crow in the morning and dogs bark at night. “No way,” I told my wife. I was going to call them back and politely decline. But to my surprise, speaking to my children, I changed my mind. My son and daughter told me, separately, that if I refused this great honor I would come to regret my decision some day. I knew right away that they were right. I thought some more about it, but I kept going back to what they said. So, I accepted.
The appointment was announced on August 2, 2007. For the next few weeks my phone didn’t stop ringing. I gave countless interviews over the phone or in person, appeared on TV and radio shows, had film crews and photographers at my house, and received hundreds of emails, letters, and packages with poetry manuscripts whose authors wanted instant critique or endorsement. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I enjoyed the attention. It was very strange to be talking to so many different people about poetry every day: the big television networks whose reporters were astonished to hear that anyone in America reads or cares for poetry, and the better newspapers and radio stations where one encountered well-informed people who asked probing questions.
Still, the amount of attention was not only overwhelming but also full of surprises. I was asked, for instance, to read a poem to an annual convention of Kansas businessmen in Topeka, to be photographed in New York’s most popular ice cream parlor eating one of their huge concoctions, to have my picture taken in a butcher shop chopping meat with a cleaver, to read a poem at the unveiling of the new vintage of a famous California vineyard, and so on. Since I had an office at the Library of Congress and spent a few days there every month, I got a few invitations from official Washington, which I mostly turned down, including one from Laura Bush to the White House.
I don’t know if you are aware of this, but our poet laureates are not called upon to write occasional poems. The position is privately endowed—originally from a fund set up by industrialist scion Arthur M. Huntington in 1936—since it is unimaginable that the Congress of the United States would ever agree to part with a penny for the purpose of promoting poetry. The Republicans, especially, are always worried that someone in the arts is undermining the religious and family values of our country. They suspect poets of being subversives, free-thinkers, sex-fiends, and drug addicts. Their fears are not entirely without foundation. There have not been many American poets, living or dead, you’d want to bring home to meet your grandmother or have speak to your Bible study group.
I figured all the hoopla would end after a couple of months, but it continued during the entire year I served. The position of the laureate has become very well known to the press and the public thanks to my fourteen predecessors, so sooner or later every small town newspaper, regional magazine, and radio station across the country would get around to asking me for an interview. I almost never said no.
Over the years, I had read too many essays by literary critics and even poets, which proclaimed confidently that poetry is universally despised and read by practically no one in United States. I recall my literature students rolling their eyes when I asked them if they liked poetry, or my old high school friends becoming genuinely alarmed upon learning that I still did. Patriotic, sentimental and greeting card verse has always been tolerated, but the kind of stuff modern poets write allegedly offends every one of those “real Americans” Sarah Palin kept praising in the last election.
During the time I served as the poet laureate, however, I found this not to be true. In a country in which schools seem to teach less literature every year, where fewer people read books and ignorance reigns supreme regarding most issues, poetry is read and written more than ever. Anyone who doesn’t believe me ought to take a peek at what’s available on the web. Who are these people who seem determined to copy almost every poem ever written in the language? Where do they find the time to do it? No wonder we have such a large divorce rate in this country. I won’t even describe the thousands of blogs, the on-line poetry magazines, both serious ones and the ones where anyone can post a poem their eight-year daughter wrote about the death of her goldfish. People who kept after me with their constant emails and letters were part of that world. They wanted me to announce what I propose to do to make poetry even more popular in United States. Unlike my predecessors who had a lot of clever ideas, like having a poetry anthology next to the Gideon Bible in every motel room in America (Joseph Brodsky), or urging daily newspapers to print poems (Robert Pinsky), I felt things were just fine. As far as I could see, there was more poetry being read and written than at any time in our history.
The obvious next question is how much of it is any good? More than one would ever imagine. America may be going to hell in every other way, but fine poems continue to be written now and then. Still, if poetry is being written and being read now more than ever, it must be because it fulfills a profound need. Where else but in poems would these Americans, who unlike their neighbors seem unwilling to seek salvation in church, convey their human predicament? Where else would they find a community of likeminded souls who care about something Emily Dickinson or Billy Collins has written? If I were asked to sum up my experience as the poet laureate, I would say, there’s nothing more interesting or more hopeful about America than its poetry.
April 27, 2010, 12:44 p.m.