History of the Position
- What is the official title of the poet laureate?
The official title of the poet laureate is "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry." This title was established by an act of Congress on December 20, 1985 (Public Law 99-194). From 1937 to December 20, 1985, the position was titled "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress."
- When was the position established?
The position has existed under two separate titles: from 1937 to 1986 as "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress" and from 1986 to present as "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry." The name was changed by an act of Congress on December 20, 1985 (Public Law 99-194), and became effective January 3, 1986.
- What is the difference between the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry?
The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is the current title of the position formerly known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Although the positions are considered equivalent, the term "poet laureate" should be reserved only for those poets who occupied the position under its current title, which was created in 1985. Poets who occupied the position when it was titled Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress are properly referred to as "consultants in poetry," or simply "consultants." For example, Robert Frost, who occupied the position from 1958 to 1959, was a consultant in poetry, not a poet laureate.
The original duties of the consultant in poetry differed greatly from the current duties of the poet laureate. The position initially was similar to that of a reference librarian, and the goal of the consultant was to serve primarily as a collection specialist and resident scholar in poetry and literature. In an April 27, 1943, letter, Library of Congress reference librarian David C. Mearns described for Allen Tate, the second consultant in poetry, his expected duties:
- To survey the existing collections in order to determine their strengths and weaknesses.
- To initiate recommendations for the purchase of additions to the collections.
- To engage in correspondence with authors and collectors with a view to securing important gifts of books and manuscripts.
- To respond to reference questions submitted by mail, and to compile occasional bibliographies.
- To confer with scholars using the Library's collections and facilities.
- To make suggestions for the improvement of the service.
Over the years, the position gradually placed less emphasis on developing the Library's collections and more on organizing local poetry readings, lectures, conferences, and outreach programs.
- How many U.S. poets laureate have there been?
There have been 23 Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry since the position was established in 1985. In 1999, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington appointed three Special Consultants (Rita Dove, W. S. Merwin, and Louise Glück) to assist with the poetry programs of the Bicentennial Year. The position of Special Consultant is distinct from the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
Prior to the position's title change, 30 poets had been appointed Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress, although only 29 served in that position. (William Carlos Williams was appointed but did not serve, and usually is not included in the count of consultants). The Library of Congress considers Gwendolyn Brooks, the final consultant in poetry, the 29th person to have occupied the consultantship.
- How many female poets laureate have there been?
There have been 7 female poets laureate (compared to 16 male poets laureate) and 6 female consultants in poetry (compared to 23 male consultants).
- Have all consultants and poets laureate been United States citizens?
Stephen Spender (England) was the first and only non-U.S. citizen to serve as consultant in poetry. All poets laureate have been U.S. citizens at the time of their appointment, although Joseph Brodsky (Russia) and Charles Simic (the former Yugoslavia) were citizens of other countries before becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.
There is no requirement that the poet laureate be a U.S. citizen.
- How much is the U.S. Poet Laureate paid?
The poet laureate currently receives a $35,000 annual stipend, plus $5,000 for travel expenses.
- Is the poet laureate paid by the U.S. government?
No. The poet laureate's position is funded by a private gift from Archer M. Huntington.
- How is the poet laureate selected?
The poet laureate is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress. The Librarian consults with the current laureate, former appointees, distinguished poetry critics, and staff in the Library's Poetry and Literature Center in making the appointment. For more information, see the blog post "How is the Poet Laureate Selected?" on From the Catbird Seat.
- How long does the poet laureate serve?
The poet laureate is typically appointed between June and August, and his or her official term typically lasts from September to May. The poet laureate may be appointed to a second term by the Librarian of Congress. Two consecutive terms is considered the maximum length of a poet laureate's tenure. Only two poets laureate have been appointed to a third term: Robert Pinsky served a third term by special request of the Librarian during the Library's Bicentennial; and Joy Harjo was appointed to a third term in order for her to further develop and extend her major poet laureate project, "Living Nations, Living Words."
- What are the duties of the poet laureate?
The Library of Congress keeps to a minimum the specific duties of the poet laureate in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library. The poet laureate gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library's annual poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States. This annual series of public poetry and fiction readings, lectures, symposia, and occasional dramatic performances began in the 1940s. Collectively the laureates have brought more than 2,000 poets and authors to the Library to read for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
Each poet laureate brings a different emphasis to the position. Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms. Maxine Kumin started a popular series of poetry workshops for women at the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks met with elementary school students to encourage them to write poetry. Rita Dove brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists. She also championed children's poetry and jazz with poetry events. Robert Hass organized the "Watershed" conference that brought together noted novelists, poets, and storytellers to talk about writing, nature and community.
- Where does the poet laureate work?
Since 1944, the poet laureate has had a small suite in the northwest corner on the third floor of the Library’s Jefferson Building. Before that time, Allen Tate, consultant in poetry from 1943 to 1944, occupied a two-room office on the main floor of the Jefferson Building and an air-conditioned cubicle in the Adams Building (then known as the Annex) for his writing and research. Beginning with Robert Penn Warren in 1944-1950, the consultant's office was in the room of the suite which offered a magnificent view of the U.S. Capitol that also inspired Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress." Previously, the room had been used by Librarians of Congress Herbert Putnam and Archibald MacLeish for "Round Table" luncheons attended by division chiefs and friends.
In 1951, the room was renovated with funds and furniture from Library benefactor Gertrude Whittall and became the Poetry Room. The consultant's office was moved to a smaller room in the suite, where it remains the office of the current poet laureate. The Poetry Room often serves the poet laureate as a meeting space for visitors and dignitaries; in addition, it is visited by many poets from across the Washington, D.C. area, by state poets laureate who come to Washington, and by visitors from other countries.
The 2012-2013 poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, resided in the Washington, D.C., area from January through May of 2013 and worked in the Poetry Room, the first time the poet laureate has done so since the inception of the position in 1986.
- Is the poet laureate required to develop a national poetry project such as Poetry 180 or the Favorite Poem Project?
While several recent poets laureate have undertaken large-scale poetry projects designed to raise awareness and appreciation of poetry on a national level, there is no such requirement.
- What are some notable "firsts" associated with the position?
Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1937-1985)
Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry (1986-present)
First appointed: Robert Penn Warren
First female: Mona Van Duyn
First African-American: Rita Dove
First Native American: Joy Harjo
First Latino: Juan Felipe Herrera
First to serve two terms: Howard Nemerov
First (and only) to serve three consecutive terms: Robert Pinsky
Youngest at time of appointment: Rita Dove (40 years old)
Oldest at time of appointment: Stanley Kunitz (95 years old)
First to serve as both consultant in poetry and poet laureate: Robert Penn Warren
First to serve simultaneously as U.S. poet laureate and a state's poet laureate: Natasha Trethewey
- How can I schedule the current poet laureate or past poets laureate for a reading or appearance?
To inquire about scheduling the current poet laureate, Joy Harjo, for a reading or appearance, please contact the literary speaker's agency Blue Flower Arts.
The Library of Congress does not coordinate the schedule of past poets laureate. Most poets laureate rely on a literary agency to schedule their upcoming readings and appearances. The majority of past poets laureate are represented by one of two literary agencies: the Steven Barclay Agency (represents Billy Collins, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, and Kay Ryan) and Blue Flower Arts (represents Ted Kooser, Charles Simic, Natasha Trethewey, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Tracy K. Smith). You should contact these agencies to inquire about scheduling a poet laureate it represents for an event. Rita Dove can be contacted through her office at the University of Virginia, as noted on her home page; she can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Requests for Charles Wright can be submitted to the Library's Poetry and Literature Center, which will forward your request to him.
- How can I contact former U.S. poets laureate? Can I contact them through the Library of Congress?
The Library of Congress is unable to forward messages from the public to former poets laureate. Generally speaking, the three best ways to get in touch with poets laureate are through their publishers, through their literary agents or literary agencies, and through through an academic institution with which they are affiliated. In addition, some poets laureate's addresses can be found through print and online phone directories. Very rarely will former poets laureate make available an email address through which the public can contact them.
The literary agencies and most recent publishers of poets laureate typically include information on their websites about how to submit letters to the poets. For poets laureate that work at a college or university, you can often find an online staff or campus directory for the institution that includes contact details such as a university email address or an office phone number. Online phone directories will sometimes provide the mailing address for former poets laureate, and possibly a phone number.
If you have a message for the current poet laureate, Joy Harjo, please direct your inquiries as suggested below:
- How can I learn more about the history of the position?
The most detailed history of the consultantship in poetry at the Library of Congress is William McGuire's Poetry's Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987 (Washington, D.C: Library of Congress, 1988). The book's "Sources and Acknowledgments" section describes many of the sources related to the position McGuire used during his research. For more information on the poet laureateship, read the essay "Poetry Programs and Poets Laureate" in the Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress (2004), which discusses the history of the Library's Poetry and Literature Center, the history of the consultantship/laureateship, and the duties performed by a number of poets laureate through Ted Kooser in 2004. A selected list of further resources about the position, reflecting multiple perspectives, follows below: