This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

18 February 2001 — The fact that the recent presidential inauguration did not feature a poet has prompted several readers to write in and ask why the new president hasn't selected a poet laureate. But not all poets who read at inaugurations are laureates. What's more, the president doesn't select who will be poet laureate. That's up to the Supreme Court.

Just kidding. The laureate is actually chosen by the Librarian of Congress — currently, James Billington. I wrote about this once before, when Billington failed to name America's best–selling poet — Jewel — as poet laureate because she wasn't named Bob.

Clearly, I need to explain everything again.

At the time of my previous explanation, Billington had just chosen Robert Pinsky as poet laureate for the third year running. Pinsky was the first laureate to three–peat since the very first American laureate, Joseph Auslander, who held the position from 1937–41, and whose poems, as a recent Washington Post article noted, ''were generally despised.'' Or, as Archibald MacLeish said of Auslander in a letter to Ezra Pound, ''Of him I know nothing good.'' Unfortunately for Auslander, soon after MacLeish wrote that he became Librarian of Congress, which meant he was Auslander's boss, which meant Auslander did not four–peat.

Actually, in Auslander's time the position didn't have a set term of office. They didn't even call it ''the poet laureate.'' They called it ''the Library of Congress consultant in poetry.'' The idea seemed to be to keep Auslander too busy consulting to write any more poetry.

But after MacLeish took over, he enacted one–year term limits and they began appointing really good poets, such as Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Hayden, and, of course, Robert Pinsky. Basically, anybody named Robert had a good shot at the job.

It was a pretty good job, too, because there was no job description. What was there to consult about? Somebody brings you something, you look at it and say, ''Yup, that's a poem.'' Or, ''Nope, that's not a poem.'' Or maybe, ''Who wrote this? Auslander?'' Plus, you get $35,000 and an assistant.

So of course, everybody wanted the job. As James Dickey — one of the few non–Roberts to hold the position — said of his 1966–67 term, ''You walk around so people can point to you and say, 'That's him.' '' Dickey, as it turned out, was so good at this he got re–appointed in 1968.

Of course, being ''consultant in poetry'' wasn't as good as being poet laureate of England, where the tradition started. For one thing, they call the poet laureate ''the poet laureate.'' Plus, the job is clearly defined: You have to write poetry for occasions of state, such as when the Queen gets older. Also, British laureates get an allowance for wine. I'd say it's pretty clear what they expect of you, and why James Dickey applied for the job when his term ran out in America.

In 1985, however, Congress ordered that our poet laureate be called ''the poet laureate.'' The librarian did as told, but just to show he couldn't be bossed around, he gave the next appointment to a previous Robert — Penn Warren — so everyone would know it was business as usual.

Except this time Penn Warren threw everyone for a loop by taking the job seriously, giving readings all over the place and wandering the country talking about poetry to anybody who had nothing better to do.

Soon, people began to expect this kind of behavior from the poet laureate. They tried another Robert — Haas — in 1996, but that didn't work, either. He started writing poems for occasions of state, as if he were British. For example, when Supreme Court Justice William Brennan retired Haas wrote a poem called ''The Woods of New Jersey,'' which had a bunch of noble stuff about deer ''so much the color of trees, they hardly seem to move.'' Brennan called Haas and asked, ''Am I the deer?''

Then, of course, there was Pinsky, whose Favorite Poem project had people all over the country reading poetry together, and made him the most popular Bob of them all.

Thus, even though our current laureate, Stanley Kunitz, is our first Stan, it's even money that when Billington names the next laureate in July it will be Robert Creely or Robert Bly.

Thus, memo to Billington: Please be advised that there is absolutely no truth to the rumor being circulated by Jewel's people that her first name is actually ''Roberta.''


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.