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From One Laureate to the Next: Who Do the Public Poets Speak For?

By August 10, 2011

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There is a tension between politics and aesthetics, between advocacy and art, that seems ingrained in the office of Poet Laureate, and each appointed laureate seems to define the office anew by deciding who to speak for as “the public poet.” Since W.S. Merwin was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate last year, he may not have been as much of a “poetry activist” as Robert Pinsky (with his Favorite Poem Project), or Billy Collins (with his Poetry 180 project for American high schools), or Ted Kooser (with his “Poetry in American Life” newspaper column). But Merwin has been an activist of another stripe, more like Robert Haas (who established the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival when he was Poet Laureate), using poetry and the laureateship to speak out about our absolute, intimate, necessary connections to the natural world. Merwin has been an environmental advocate for a very long time—when Edward Hirsch asked about the origins of his ecological consciousness 24 years ago (in an interview published in the spring 1987 issue of The Paris Review), Merwin recounted two childhood memories:

“...one day—I must have been around the age of three—two men came and started cutting the limbs off the one tree in the backyard, and I simply lost my temper and ran out and started beating them. Everybody was so impressed with this outburst of real rage that my father never even punished me. And the second thing: I was so fascinated by these watercolors in a book about Indians that I began teaching myself to read the captions. The Indians seemed to be living in a place and in a way that was of immense importance to me. So I associate learning to read—English, oddly enough—with wanting to know about Indians.”
And in these closing days of his service as U.S. Poet Laureate, he has chosen to use that office’s bully pulpit to sound the alarm about the consequences of our failing stewardship of the other life forms with whom we share this planet earth:

from The Washington Post:
US poet laureate says humans not being true to themselves by failing to take care of planet,” by Audrey McAvoy (Associated Press)
“Humans aren’t being true to themselves and are cutting back on their own chances for survival by failing to take care of other life and the planet, the nation’s poet laureate said Tuesday.... W.S. Merwin told scientists and others working to protect Hawaii’s natural resources at a meeting in Waikiki that they were doing work of ‘desperate importance’ as species become extinct at an increasingly rapid rate around the world.”

Merwin’s successor as Poet Laureate, just announced by the Library of Congress, will be Philip Levine, plain-spoken narrative poet of the working class. In this economic environment, with the ranks of the downtrodden and the unemployed growing to ever larger proportions of the American population, we think it’s a fitting choice. Levine told AP writer Hillel Italie that he plans to use the laureateship to give voice to poets and workers who have not been heard:

“I’m a fairly irreverent person and at first I thought, ‘This is not you. You’re an old union man....’ But I knew if I didn’t do this, I would kick myself.... There’s a great deal of American poetry that’s hardly known and that should be known. As a poet who didn’t get published for a long time, I know what it’s like to not to be read. The other thing I’d like to do is reach out to readers. I would like to bring attention to the kind of people I’ve written about.”
Levine will begin his term with a reading in Washington, D.C. in October, and we’re looking forward to hearing his stories.

from The New York Times:
Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate,” by Charles McGrath
“He was selected from a long list of nominees by James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who said on Monday, ‘I find him an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before. He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland.... a very, very American voice.’”

also from The New York Times:
Making Rare Appearance: People and Their Appetites,” by Dwight Garner
“The work of Philip Levine, America’s new and 18th poet laureate, is welcome because it radiates a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.”

More on Laureates:
Poets Laureate, a Brief History
Poets Laureate of the U.S.A., a Net-annotated List

Our Profiles of Recent U.S. Poet Laureates
W.S. Merwin (2010-2011)
Kay Ryan (2008-2010)
Charles Simic (2007-2008)
Donald Hall (2006-2007)
Ted Kooser (2004-2006)
Louise Gl├╝ck (2003-2004)
Stanley Kunitz (2000-2001)
Robert Pinsky (1997-2000)

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