A few years ago, I opened my literature classes with the question, "Who is the current Poet Laureate of the United States?" Almost uniformly, I was answered with, "What's a Poet Laureate?" A few enterprising students responded with the names of poets they knew, Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. It was easy for me to supply the correct who to my question because I'd cheated and looked it up, but it was much more difficult for me to answer the what of their response.
The Poet Laureate is chosen by the Librarian of the Congress, presumably after consulting a few back issues of the New Yorker. The Laureate collects a modest annual salary of $35,000 and for this wage, is required to present their lyrical mastery once over the course of the year. The Laureate often elects to do some civic laboring to promote the value and humanity of Capital-P-Poetry, but they aren't required to do much more than pursue their work, and that at their leisure.
The first Poet Laureate wasn't called a laureate but a "Consultant in Poetry," a post that was first filled in 1937 by Joseph "Saturday Evening Post" Auslander. "Consultant" sounds both bureaucratic and inconsequential, sort of like the "Assistant Producer" designation of movies, but it was a title held by some lauded poets; Bishop, Williams, Frost, and Lowell all sported the modest "Consultant" moniker. This fame of personage, however, has not always been the norm for the post. Most of the Consultants appear to have been elected by a process of spinning a bottle at a New York party. I'm looking at you, Leonie.
Then in 1986 the Consultant became the "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," a title which not even a Laureate's mother could deliver without smirking. For means of comparison, the first British Poet Laureate was appointed in the late fifteenth century by Henry VII, and he, Bernard Andre, wrote mostly in Latin. I don't mean to suggest that we Yanks should feel insecure about the length of our laurels.
It's hard to argue that the Laureate is the most prestigious or gifted or productive of poets. It's hard to argue for their cultural relevance as poetry continues to be a kind of cultural charity supported by grants, prizes, benefactors, and academies. The Laureate isn't required to write poems for inaugurations or ceremonies, though they sometimes have, so it's hard to argue that they act as a formal poetic voice to the country. What, then, is the Laureate? How are they chosen? Do we need one? Does having a Laureate do poets any favors, or are we performing an autocoronation without a kingdom? Why is our current Laureate an 82 year old who lives on top of a dead volcano in Hawaii?
Quick now: who is it? Who is the Laureate?
I have many questions, many suspicions, and one or two prejudices, but only piddling experience on the subject of Laureates. So I'm going to look into it. I'm going to read every one of the Laureates, starting at the beginning with Joseph "Precious Moments" Auslander, and I'm going to log my findings here as crooked proof. I have no intention of producing a fair or entire portrait of these men and women, but I will give them a reasonable read, and I will place all of my remarks in the cowardly brackets of irony to stave off any earnest or academic discourse.