Monday, August 15, 2011

The Consultants

U.S. Poet laureates were originally known as 'the Official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress". It took an act of Congress in 1985 to change their official title to Poet Laureate. Imagine, Congress actually achieved something 'back then'. 

The first Official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress was appointed in 1937.  Joseph Auslander had no official job description and no official term of office. But he was a poet, known for his poems on war and on the German occupation of Europe. Auslander served as the official consultant until 1941. 

 I immediately started organizing a spread sheet of poet laureates, sortable alphabetically,  by the year of their term in office, by their poetry style and by their noteworthy poems. I find it is good to be organized this way. 

Many of the PLOTUS (Poet Laureate of the United States - but is plural PLOTI?) are familiar names. William Carlos Williams. Robert Frost. James Dicky. Gwendolyn Brooks. Robert Penn Warren. Rita Dove. Many of the PLOTUS are not familiar names... too many to list here. 
But I have them listed on my spreadsheet. 

And I am working my way through the list, adding tidbits of information about each as I come across it. Sometimes I find a hint of the poet, the 'person', when reading a poem s/he wrote. Sometimes I find it in a press release about her/him. And sometimes a hint of it comes across in an interview.

Donald Hall. PLOTUS 2006-2207. The bits and pieces I knew about him could fill a thimble. Now I can fill a coffee mug. 
Donald Hall. At first glimpse of him, I thought he was C. Everett Koop's older cousin.
Donald Hall. His wife, Jane Kenyon (also a poet) was 19 years younger, a former student of his, and she died much too young. Hall himself has 'battled' cancer since 1989. But he keeps his sense of humor, his poetry skills strong. 

PLOTUS (PLOTI?) recently have defined their term with a mission statement. Robert Pinsky's term is known for his 'Favorite Poem Project'.  I was teaching high school at the time Pinsky started the Favorite Poem Project. Our Junior and Senior English classes were all caught up in the excitement of the project - each student searching poetry anthologies for the ONE poem that struck them, stuck to them, one that became their favorite. 

PLOTUS Ted Kooser (2004-2006) chose a poem a week for national newspapers to print. Joseph Brodsky encouraged poetry to be displayed/available in airports and hotel rooms. I note these on my PLOTUS spreadsheet.

Donald Hall hoped to encourage poetry reading on TV. PBS most likely. Hall is quoted as saying "People listen to it a good deal, the poetry reading is popular. I have lived long enough so that I have seen poetry increase enormously in audience. I know that it is not so many people as go to the dog tracks one night in Florida, probably."

Right now, Donald Hall is my favorite PLOTUS. He writes about his wife's death in a way that many of us know. The fear, the knowledge, the overwhelming sadness. I know he knows it. I know it, too. The early morning phone call to tell me my father had died. My hsuband's phone call when he found his own mother dead. The call about Peter's suicide.

"It was reasonable
to expect.”
"...There's nothing to do.”
(from Last Days by Donald Hall) 

But my PLOTUS spreadsheet has many blank spaces, many columns to be filled with poets, with new knowledge. 

I hope you take time to know a PLOTUS.  Just pick one and read.


Pat Tillett said...

You must have been a great teacher. You've just taken something I really had no interest in (the position of PLOTUS) and now I'm going to look into it.
Thanks for the inspiration!
Have a great day Brenda.

Banjo52 said...

Well done. What a good plan. I'd never be that organized or patient. Can I cheat off your spread sheet? (I also don't know how to make a spread sheet). (Maybe if I say spread sheet one more time, it will make itself. I rely on such processes when it comes to technology). (Or maybe if I say spread sheet one more time, I will commit a typo, and I will have cussed--without malice aforethought).

By the way, didn't Merwin's period go awfully fast? Seems to me they just named him . . .

Thérèse said...

Great post! Thanks Brenda.
I picked Mona Van Duyn, the first woman Poet Laureate.
". . . a time came when I heard the roar
and eagerly bent my mind to the waters’ will
that filled my fleshy chambers to their core.
Wild for the blind, helpless confinement to send me
over the lip in a will-less fall, thrown
from my safe, observant stand, tossed, rammed,
broken, drowned perhaps—but love alone,
however strong and skilled, could build no barrel.
My field unamplified as the voice of one bird’s
in the corn, I fall, rise, praise, fall,
sowing and tilling my single crop— Words. Words.
"Firefall" "Fall"

Brenda's Arizona said...

Thanks, everyone! Therese, you have opened my eyes more quickly! My spread sheet is growing...
Banjomyn, you cannot cheat.
Merwin - yes, here and gone! Does that mean his columns in the spreadsheet will have blanks? Or will the research just be more comprehensive?

altadenahiker said...

Well, all right, then. I'm taking Joseph Auslander and will report back.