As world cries out, so should poet laureates

Joseph Brodsky, poet laureate in 1991, called himself a "poetry activist."
Joseph Brodsky, poet laureate in 1991, called himself a "poetry activist."
Posted: March 29, 2011

A few days ago, the Guardian in London boldly put out a list of the top 10 American poems. It was sobering reading, largely because only one of the poets is still alive. John Ashbery, a masterly wordsmith, is 83. He was born the same year as the present U.S. poet laureate, whom I am certain only a tiny percentage of us could name.

Can you? Did you know we had one? It's William Stanley Merwin - a wonderful, if sometimes opaque, poet, who lived in Scranton from the age of 11, but moved to Hawaii in the 1970s. Today he lives on the heights of an old volcano, in a rain forest that was once a pineapple plantation. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and once before in 1971, when he donated his prize money to the Vietnam War resistance movement. His poems warn of environmental degradation - "Now we are melting the very poles of the earth," he wrote recently - and the senselessness of war.

A man of the hour, you'd think; it is a shame we have not heard more from him.

He told President Obama the theme of his tenure: "Humans are not a separate species. When we destroy the world, we're destroying ourselves."

We did not hear much from Kay Ryan, the previous poet laureate, either. She lives in California but is shy, and had accepted the role reluctantly. Her poems have a certain sweetness, and directness, but Ryan is uncomfortable talking about poetry.

These poets are potent, original thinkers; surely it is time to hear more from them. And isn't it time Pennsylvania had its own poet laureate again, now that we have been without one since Samuel Hazo's tenure was ended in 2003? Even Brooklyn has a poet laureate!

When the title originated, in Britain, the laureate meant the poet of the monarch, and many of the first, including Chaucer, were paid in alcohol. Some were good, and others were insipid, but almost all wrote poems to mark moments of great public grief, or joy. William Wordsworth was a rotten laureate despite being an exquisite wordsmith; he only took the job when assured he would have to do nothing, but Alfred Tennyson gladly wrote reams.

In the United States, no alcohol is involved; the Library of Congress appoints the laureate, who is paid a paltry $35,000 for a year's work and is asked only to do a reading and vaguely promote poetry.

This seems like a wasted opportunity. Surely poet laureates should be seen as public poets, should be paid more, should live in Washington, and be asked to write poems about our world, now. It might seem whimsical to suggest that poems matter when walls of water drown cities, when gut-wrenching tumult afflicts the Middle East, and when one in four American children depends on food stamps - but isn't the point of poetry to help us make sense of all this upheaval? To take emotions we fumble to describe, and bake them as cakes? To say what we can't or won't, and to force us to remember what matters?

What if we had a composer laureate, or even a musician, like Bruce Springsteen? We are more likely these days to find comfort in lyrics than laments.

There have of course been exceptions: Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Maxine Kuhn worked with young students, the African diaspora, and women; and Billy Collins wrote a poem after 9/11, "The Names," which he read to Congress. In it, he cites the names of some of the fallen:

Names etched on the head of a pin.

One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled into the skin . . ..

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Poetry is not for the elite; it's for those who have hearts, blood, and brains.

A brilliant example of a public poet was Russian American Joseph Brodsky, the first immigrant laureate, whose intensity welded the position of laureate into something interesting. He was a self-described "poetry activist" who demanded to be taken seriously, and argued that we should place free poetry anthologies in public places - airports, hotels, hospitals.

Perhaps we should ask for braver choices. We should seek out those who are evangelists for words, who can remind us about the urgency and importance of writing. Countless jobs are bureaucratic, timid, and silent; poet laureates should not be among them.

Contact Julia Baird at

comments powered by Disqus