Juan Felipe Herrera has been appointed the Poet Laureate of the United States. His official title is Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; in the Library’s own words, he “serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” Herrera, the son of migrant farm workers, will attract the bolts from September until May. As Poet Laureate, he has modest official duties and gets paid a $35,000 stipend funded by a gift by the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington.
Lightning aside, the idea of the poet laureate goes back to the Greeks, who gave crowns and wreathes of laurel to high achievers. Walter Hamilton, in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society of 1880, gives a marvelously old-fashioned account of this history. Of the 16th century Italian Laureate Torquato Tasso, Hamilton writes that “he became so peculiar in his habits that he was for some years detained in a lunatic asylum.”
The classical tradition was revived, as so much else, during the Renaissance. Eventually, “poet laureate” came to be an official recognition, given by city, state, or monarch. You would now be hard pressed to find a representation of a pre-modern poet without a laurel crown. The United States adopted the British tradition, which goes back to James I, who granted a pension to Ben Johnson in 1616.
Here in the much younger U.S., the position dates to 1936, when it was titled the Consultant in Poetry. Howard Nemerov, who held the position twice, in 1963 and 1988, is amusingly quoted in Craig D’Ooge’s American Libraries recapping of the history of the position in the United States. Nemerov made fun of the supposed plushness of the office, sitting “at the right eye of the Library of Congress” amid a stately pleasure dome of (non-existent) luxuries.
Among other surprises, you’ll learn from D’Ooge that William Carlos Williams’s appointment was delayed because of an FBI investigation into his politics. To which he wrote: “So much depends/ upon/ a security clearance/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the red chickens.”
Today, there are more poet laureates than you can shake a stanza at. Landmarks, towns, cities, states, and nations have them; there are Poet Laureates for Children and Youth Poet Laureates who are youthful. But Herrera now wears the laurel crown of laurel crowns here in the U.S.; let’s hope those lighting bolts don’t singe his glorious leaves of poetry.