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Poems of a partisan nature


What does the poet laureate do?
Richard Wilbur Poet
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When the name of the job changed, it was offered first to Robert Pen Warren, who accepted it but who was not well at the time and really couldn't perform many of its functions. For him, it amounted chiefly to an honour, and then the job was offered to me and I was in good health, and so I did all the things that they expected of me, but those were not very time-consuming really. To pick out a few lecturers and introduce them when they came to Washington, to give a little advice as to what books the Library should acquire, to suggest that so-and-so should record his poems for the Library, all of that is not too exhausting. On my first day in Washington I walked into the office of the two secretaries who had to do with the laureate operation and said, 'Now what do I do?' and they said, 'Well, you must tell us what are you going to do, what use will you make of this appointment'. And I said, 'Well, what if I was simply to declare it an honour and go home and write some more poems?' and they told me that that was really not the idea, or hadn't been the behaviour of anybody to date.

I found soon that, that there were other things involved in the job. For one thing, the title of poet laureate maddened the journalists of Washington. They wanted to know what it meant, and the first question in any of the many, many interviews I gave was always, 'What does the poet laureate do?' The answer came to be, 'He gives interviews of this kind'. I think and I understand why the press wanted to question me about this job, and that was one thing I generally said. I can see that one of my functions came to be - I don't think the Library was being sly about this at all - but one of my functions came to be to give the Library a little publicity. It's rather hard for a library, even one as magnificent as the Library of Congress, to get its way into the newspapers, and you need to get into the newspapers if you're going to get next year's congressional appropriation, so that I found myself essentially, but not through anybody's slyness, doing publicity for the Library of Congress.

I also ran around and gave readings wherever I was asked to go, and I did quasi-diplomatic things. When some English poets would come and read at the auditorium, I would try to be nice to them, within my powers. Now, subsequent laureates have given the position still more meaning than had ever occurred to me to give it, partly I think because the Librarian of Congress and others wanted if possible to use the new position and the glamour associated with it for what they called outreach, for the furtherance of the art of poetry in America, and well, as we know, subsequent laureates did thing of clever ways to exploit the office and it's, it's noticeableness. Joseph Brodsky wanted to give away poems at every checkout line in our grocery stores. That didn't happen, but I think it started subsequent laureates to do things like reading poems rather regularly on public radio, fostering contests here and there, supporting prize-giving. Well, I can't really list all of the, all of the promotions which have happened since, and some of them have doubtless been good. I think there's a limit to our power, to anybody's power, to ram poetry down the throats of the public. We can only do so much to call attention to what might please people if they were not so busy with other and easier diversions. But I think something actually has been accomplished by some of my successors.

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, Washington, Robert Pen Warren

Duration: 5 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008