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What does the poet laureate do?


America creates its own poet laureate
Richard Wilbur Poet
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I guess I'd better go back to Archibald MacLeish. I think that it was under his quite distinguished librarianship at the Library of Congress, that there was invented a role or a position called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. I have a feeling that the first appointee may have been Louise Bogan. In any case, that happened a good while back and so for a couple of decades, many good poets had been asked to come and spend a year, sometimes two years, in Washington under that consultancy title. People like Conrad Akin, Alan Tate, Randal Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost had done it. I don't think that there had been a great deal of excitement about it, about this appointment, and one reason probably was that it was called a consultancy. In Washington DC nobody gets excited if you say the word 'consultant' because half of the people on the street are consultants.

But in '86 or '7, Senator Spark Matsunaga finally had his way. That senator had been a war hero, had been a poet all his life, a lover of poetry, he wanted America to have a laureateship and to confer on poets the honour of being called laureate for a bit, and so the Congress voted that there should be a poet laureate. However, they didn't vote anything else along with it. It continued to be the old consultancy with the same requirements. What Congress wanted you to do if you were the American laureate was to advise the Library of Congress on acquisitions in poetry and literary criticism, advise the Library of Congress as to who should come and read or lecture in the Gertrude Clark Whitall Auditorium, and give the Library good counsel about who should record for their remarkable archive of recordings. I think that was about it, although of course the position entailed being hospitable to visits of school-children to the Library and the like.

Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: American Poet Laureate, Library of Congress, Washington, Washington DC, US Congress, Gertrude Clark Whitall Auditorium, Archibald MacLeish, Louise Bogan, Conrad Akin, Alan Tate, Randal Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Spark Matsunaga

Duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008