The Legacy of Poet Laureates
Shillinger, Kurt, The Christian Science Monitor
TO call Robert Hass the eighth poet laureate of the United States is somewhat misleading. The office has existed in one form or another since 1937. Prior to 1986, when Robert Penn Warren returned to the office after 40 years and first accepted its current title, his predecessors were known more blandly as "consultants in poetry."
The poet laureate is a spokesperson for his or her craft, a custodian of poetry in American culture. The job is fairly and deliberately unstructured. The office, which is privately funded, requires the holder to act as a consultant to the Library of Congress, advising the institution in regard to the forces and trends in American literature.
Each year, the laureate helps select new poets to read in the Library's series and to be added to the archives of artists reading their own work.
Beyond that, the officeholder is free to pursue special projects - limited, of course, by the funds he or she can raise.
Rita Dove, the outgoing laureate, conducted a special symposium entitled "The Black Diaspora" and a reading by Crow Indian poets. …