What Does a Poet Laureate Actually Do?

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Philip Levine, an American poet, was appointed this week to the poorly paid, less-than-powerful, yet somehow-still-lofty position of United States’ poet laureate, triggering a cacophony of questions from average American news consumers like me. These questions include the following: who’s this octogenarian dude in a t-shirt talking about the fine arts during primetime? And, what does a poet laureate do anyway? Here’s the quick and dirty.

Philip Levine, 83, doesn’t exactly fit the brooding, elitist poet archetype. He drinks beer, he has a woodsman’s mustache, and he writes about suburbia. Which isn’t to say he’s not intellectual. His poems have been described this week as everything from gritty realist to soaringly magical, from playful to searing. Perhaps most importantly, his poems are said to capture a cross section of average, blue-collar American society that isn’t often found in the poetry aisle at your local bookstore.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Levine spent his youth working a series of “stupid jobs,” as he called them, in the Cadillac and Chevy factories—places not exactly known for their appreciation of rhyme and meter. It took this Michigander sixteen years of minimum wage gigs and scratching away at his desk at night in near obscurity to get his first book published, when he was 35. Since then, his furious-yet-droll voice has become a touchstone of American poetry.

Job Description

As for the poet laureate title, Levine’s not getting rich anytime soon. The official position—Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—comes with a $35,000 stipend, funded by a private organization, and little in the way of fame, glory or perks of any kind. (Although, in a bit of good news for poetry-lovers, Levine’s books have reportedly been selling out since the announcement of his appointment Wednesday, with a six-day backorder on Amazon.

Like all the poet laureates since the position was created in 1937, Levine will have very few official duties, except for reading a poem or two at the Library of Congress’ annual poetry symposium, and showing up at events when he’s requested. Past laureates have sometimes taken up a cause célèbre a la the first lady—everything from preserving biodiversity to bringing poetry back into newspapers—although others have simply stuck to the age-old job of poets since Sophocles’ time: finding a way to describe “Truth,” or at the very least, “truths,” in our world.

Here’s a younger Levine, in his 1991 book, The Simple Truth, taking a stab at the notion:

"Some things/you know all your life. They are so simple and true/they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,/they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,/the glass of water, the absence of light gathering/ in the shadows of picture frames, they must be/ naked and alone, they must stand for themselves."

Here’s to more octogenarians and fine arts during primetime.

August 12, 2011 - 5:57pm
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