Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The wisdom of a poet laureate

with 2 comments

Robert Pinsky

I met Robert Pinsky once. At the time, he had been serving as the United States poet laureate for just over a year, and I was a high school senior at a conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where a long list of distinguished honorees were doing their best to hang out with one another and avoid smartass questions from kids like me. At one event, I got Pinsky’s autograph, and tried to ingratiate myself by saying that I’d really enjoyed his translation of the Purgatorio. (He’d actually only translated the Inferno, but never mind.) I also mentioned that I was writing an essay on the poetry of Ezra Pound for a literature class, and asked if he had any thoughts on the subject. He responded by citing Pound’s observation, which I recently posted here, that a poet is a centaur: he needs to master both the intellectual and the sentient faculties, so he’s like a man on horseback who has to shoot an arrow at the same time. I dutifully noted this down, and after returning home, I included his observation in my essay, which began with the words: “As Robert Pinsky once said to me…”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this encounter a lot, ever since posting a series of quotations from former poets laureate as my quotes of the day. The hard thing about finding quotes for a blog like this—and I’ve posted well over seven hundred of them—is that you quickly run through most of the famous aphorisms on writing fiction. Once you’ve gone through “Kill all your darlings,” “When you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out,” and “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” you’re forced to look further afield for material. I’ve made a habit of systematically plumbing other disciplines for insights that might be applicable to the art of fiction, and I’ve done so with profit in such fields as architecture, dance, and computer design. Whenever I find a rich new vein of quotations, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I realized that I could draw upon the work of recent poets laureate, ultimately posting quotes from Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Howard Nemerov, W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, and Stanley Kunitz.

Natasha Trethewey

And this strikes me as a fine advertisement for the role of poet laureate itself. Like most people, I’m not entirely clear what a poet laureate does. As Robert Penn Warren said upon his appointment: “I don’t expect you’ll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.” According to the Library of Congress, the formal responsibilities of the laureateship—which is funded by a private endowment from the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington—consist only of giving a reading at the beginning and end of the term and selecting two annual poetry fellows. More evocatively, another page on the official site says:

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

It’s hard to imagine a comparable public position that includes the term “official lightning rod” in its description, but perhaps it’s only fitting for such a peculiar role. And if nothing else, it means that poets laureate will have greater occasion than most of their contemporaries to speak seriously about poetry’s craft and importance, often in a book or two, which explains why they’re such a good source of quotable wisdom.

As far as I’m concerned, this justifies the position all by itself. Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless, and not without reason, but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience. Novelists have a range of awards that can serve a similar function, which is why establishing a “novelist laureate” would be redundant, as much fun as it might have been to watch the likes of Mailer or Updike fight over a title that probably would have gone to Louis L’Amour. For most ordinary readers, though, who presumably have trouble remembering that something like the Bollingen Prize even exists, a poet laureateship is one of the few things that can make us sit up and take notice. And most laureates, to their credit, have used the position admirably. Poetry is the most fragile and precious form of literary expression we have, and it’s a national resource that deserves to be protected. And since I’ve been quoting them so much, I’ll close with the words that our current poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, fittingly uses to describe her own job: “You are the cheerleader for poetry.”

2 Responses

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  1. You met Pinsky, what a dream! I don’t even dare try and describe how much I adore him. I just wanted to remark on what an incredible experience that must have been and to say I love reading your blog.

    smashingthroughlife

    February 11, 2013 at 10:29 am

  2. He’s super cool. And he was incredibly nice to me, which is more than I can say for some of the other luminaries—*cough* George Lucas *cough*—I tried to approach that weekend.

    nevalalee

    February 11, 2013 at 10:56 am


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