By Cavanaugh, Tim
Reason , Vol. 41, No. 7
SOMETHING THERE is in Americans that doesn't love a poet laureate. Literarily speaking, we're a nation of hard bodies; we prefer our writing either "lean" and "muscular" or "taut" and "sculpted." Our collective image of a poet is somewhere between Walt Whitman and Percy Dovetonsils, the absurd rhymester played by Ernie Kovacs as the opposite of Yankee good sense and pragmatism. The laureate part doesn't sound very democratic either, conjuring images of Roman court flatterers, bewigged monarchs who commission dithyrambs for royal hymens.
Yet here we are, 233 years into the American experiment and 72 years into the de facto and de jure reign of U.S. poets laureate.
Can you name the U.S. poet laureate ? Before looking into the position, I could name only two poets laureate in all of history: the Englishman Bob Southey, who was the butt of a funny anti-laureate screed at the beginning of Byron's "Don Juan," and New Jersey laureate Amiri Baraka, whose tenure ended in 2003 when the Garden State's legislature voted 69-2 to abolish the position rather than hear any more of "Somebody Blew Up America," Baraka's free-verse investigation into the Jews' role in 9/11.
But after researching the issue I am now fairly certain that the United States doesn't do enough for its national poet. Although the seat has been around since 1937, our instinctively anti-feudal nation resisted the vaguely Dantean tide "poet laureate" in favor of "consultant in poetry." In 1986 the post was redubbed "poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress"--a tide leaden enough to kill the lyrical spirit in every breast.
By any name, the U.S. poet laureate doesn't get much scratch. The compensation package of $35,000 in salary and $5,000 in travel expenses is not funded by taxpayer money. It comes out of a trust fund established in 1936 by the rail and shipping heir Archer M. Huntington. Huntington's original donation of $250,000 in stock has grown at a decent but unspectacular rate: As of 2008 the Huntington Fund, managed by the Bank of New York, was worth $4.6 million. (If you'd like to throw in a few shekels yourself, go to the "Support the Library" link at loc.gov.) Yet the laureate's salary hasn't even kept pace with inflation. The first consultant, Joseph Auslander, made $3,000. That should come to $45,000 in 2009 bucks.
Everything's like that for the American poet laureate. The British laureate gets a "butt of sack" (about 600 bottles of sherry) and is called upon to compose verse for national occasions. (Former laureate Andrew Motion whipped up poems for Queen Elizabeth's 80th birthday and the late Queen Mum's 100th.) The U.S. poet laureate's job, as described by the Library of Congress, is to serve as a "lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans" which sounds dangerously close to having to read unsolicited manuscripts. The laureate's only duty is to give one lecture, during which the Huntington Fund pays for what a Library of Congress spokeswoman calls a "small, cheese-and-crackers reception."
This Quaker leveling instinct applies to tenure as well. In the U.K., laureates hold office for 10 years; they used to hold it for life. The United States, fearful that a poet laureate might amass too much power, term-limits its laureates after only one year. …