The Sad, Boring Job of the U.S. Poet Laureate

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If we want Americans to care about poetry, perhaps we should start by putting some stock in our poet laureate–who, one would think, should be a very visible, active advocate for this chronically underappreciated genre. Reason columnist Tim Cavanaugh rolls out the litany of disappointments faced by a U.S. poet laureate, including an abbreviated term (just one year to Britain’s 10), a dearth of interesting duties, and a stipend only a journalist could love–$35,000 for the year, plus $5,000 in travel expenses–which is covered not by taxpayers, but by a trust fund established in 1936. (Adding insult to injury, Cavanaugh writes, “the laureate’s salary hasn’t even kept pace with inflation. The first consultant, Joseph Auslander, made $3,000. That should come to $45,000 in 2009 bucks.”)

Cavanaugh doesn’t say what the going rate is in the UK, but he does note other disparities. “The British laureate gets a ‘butt of sack’ (about 600 bottles of sherry) and is called upon to compose verse for national occasions. (Former laureate Andrew Motion whipped up poems for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday and the late Queen Mum’s 100th.) The U.S. poet laureate’s job, as described by the Library of Congress, is to serve as a ‘lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,’ which sounds dangerously close to having to read unsolicited manuscripts. The laureate’s only duty is to give one lecture, during which the Huntington Fund pays for what a Library of Congress spokeswoman calls a ‘small, cheese-and-crackers reception.’ “

He does touch upon the energetic terms of former U.S. poets laureate like Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, and advises future laureates to get involved in popular arenas like poetry slams, “where the poetic impulse of Americans is most clearly on display.”

Source: Reason

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