Playfully profound former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins is making the rounds to promote his new book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. Which means, among other things, that "two-term Poet Laureate of the United States" and variations thereof have been sprinkled liberally throughout reviews, promotional material and interviews. The title sounds impressive, and indeed it is, but for many, the role is a complete mystery.
The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress "serves as the official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans," according to the Library of Congress, which appoints a preeminent poet to the position each year. The Poet Laureate is not required to commemorate major events (although Billy Collins memorialized the victims of 9/11 in The Names); instead, he or she is tasked with spending a September-to-May term nudging the American public toward a greater appreciation of poetry. The honour includes a $35,000 stipend.
Alongside three concrete tasks —giving a reading or presentation at the inauguration and closing of his or her term, and selecting and introducing the two annual Witter Bynner Fellows — Poets Laureate may choose to pursue a special initiative or project. These vary according the the Poet Laureate's own interests and ideas; for instance:
- Joseph Brodsky (1991-1992) put poetry in public places, including airports, hospitals, hotels and supermarkets (perhaps with a touch of inspiration from the London Tube?).
- Robert Pinsky (1997-2000) encouraged Americans to celebrate their favourite poems.
- The aforementioned Billy Collins (2001-2003) distributed a poem to every American high school for each of the 180 days of the school year through his "Poetry 180" project.
- Ted Kooser (2004-2005) offered newspapers and online periodicals a free weekly column featuring a poem from a contemporary American poet.
- The current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey (2012- ) will host a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series in which she will examine societal issues through poetry on location in cities across the United States.
Embedding poetry into a nation's consciousness is a formidable challenge that speaks to the very heart of a populace: as Charles Simic (2007-2008) assures us, "there's nothing more interesting or hopeful about America than its poetry."