How is the Poet Laureate Selected?

This post addresses one of the most common questions received by the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center:

How is the Poet Laureate selected?

Since the presidential election season is upon us, I should first hasten to point out that Poet Laureate is not appointed the same way as the U.S. president: there are no Poet Laureate primaries, no Free and Formal Verse National Conventions, and there is no national election.  And despite what some people seem to believe, the Poet Laureate also is not selected like the Pope: there is no conclave of leading poets who gather at the Library to cast secret ballots for the next Poet Laureate (and we’d certainly never use smoke to indicate a new Laureate was selected!). No, the selection process is much simpler, and goes something like this:

The Librarian of Congress identifies a poet he’d like to serve as Poet Laureate, confirms that the poet is willing and able to serve as Poet Laureate, and then appoints the poet to the position.

Since your average Librarian of Congress—with the possible exception of Archibald

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has selected every U.S. Poet Laureate since he first appointed Howard Nemerov to the position in 1988.

MacLeish—does not spend his time scouring literary magazines and keeping up on all the latest award winners in poetry, you might ask how he identifies potential candidates for Poet Laureate. The answer is that in any given year the Librarian may seek suggestions from the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, the outgoing Poet Laureate, former Consultants and Poets Laureate, and distinguished poets and poetry critics. Based on the suggestions the Librarian receives, he will often develop a short list of potential candidates whose work he will read—quick access to the poets’ published collections is not an issue at the largest library in the world!—en route to making a selection. I should emphasize that the final decision on which poet to appoint to the position is the Librarian’s alone. And Rob Casper, the current head of the Poetry and Literature Center, says that Librarian James H. Billington is more than up to the task—”He’s one of the most generous and astute readers of poetry I have ever known,” in Rob’s words.

With a few exceptions, especially in the early history of the Consultantship, as the position was previously known, the Librarian of Congress has always been open to receiving suggestions for who should serve in the position. While most of the suggestions have been made by groups or individuals with no official connection to the Library, for a short period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s the Librarian of Congress was assisted in his selection by a more official entity, the Fellows of the Library of Congress in American Letters (or, for short, the Fellows in American Letters). Established in 1944 by Allen Tate, this small group of American poets and critics—the initial members included Katherine Garrison Chapin (Francis Biddle), Katherine Anne Porter, Willard Thorp, Mark Van Doren, Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Green, Allen Tate, and Carl Sandburg—would come to be involved in a number of the Library’s literary activities, including developing the Library’s literary collections, selecting winners of certain poetry prizes, and, of course, recommending poets for the Consultantship in Poetry.

Some of the correspondence between individual members of the Fellows in American Letters shed light on the historical selection process for the Consultantship and make for entertaining reading (since the Fellows gathered at the Library only once a year, much of their discussion took the form of written correspondence). Fortunately, a number of the Fellows’ letters are available online through the American Memory collection Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953, and they offer readers a glimpse of the debate surrounding the selection of individual Consultants. For example, in the first several months of 1945, Robert Penn Warren conducted an informal poll among the Fellows about who should serve as the next Consultant. A selection of the letters exchanged between Warren and the other Fellows are reproduced in Freedom’s Fortress. For your reading enjoyment, below I provide links to the digitized letters, with brief notes on their contents:

Warren recommends R. P. Blackmur be appointed the next Consultant from a list of six candidates that includes Theodore Spencer, Paul Engle, Winfield Townley Scott, Louise Bogan, and Delmore Schwartz.

Letter from Robert Penn Warren to Luther Harris Evans, January 26, 1945

Robert Penn Warren's Letter to Librarian of Congress Luther Evans lists six candidates for the Consultant in Poetry

Thorp confirms for Librarian of Congress Luther Evans that R. P. Blackmur is qualified to serve as Consultant.

Tate reviews Warren’s list of six candidates and names Blackmur and Bogan as his “double first choice,” though he lists Blackmur first because Bogan might be unavailable to work in Washington for a year.

Porter suggests either Blackmur or Bogan for the position, deeming “Miss Bogan the better poet, Mr. Blackmur the better critic.”

Biddle lists Theodore Spencer as her first choice for “qualities of scholarship and relationship to the subject,” while Blackmur is a “strong second choice.”

Green recommends Paul Engle “without mentioning the many reasons” for his choice.

Librarian of Congress Luther Evans mails Sandburg a press release announcing Louise Bogan’s appointment as the Consultant in Poetry. Evans notes that in the balloting which Robert Warren conducted, “Ms. Bogan and Mr. Paul Engle were almost tied for first place.” Miss Bogan was selected because she “had indicated informally that she could accept; Mr. Engle, that he could not accept. . . .”

One of the differences between the selection process leading to Louise Bogan’s appointment and the modern Poet Laureate selection process is that the general public can now contact the Poetry and Literature Center to nominate poets for the position. The nomination process is informal—all that is required is the name of the poet—but all nominations received by the Center are taken into consideration when determining which poets should be brought to the Librarian of Congress’ attention. While there are no formal qualifications to serve as Poet Laureate, keep in mind that Poets Laureate usually have several critically acclaimed collections of poetry to their name and are highly respected in the literary community for their work. If a poet’s publication credits include only self-published works or poems published by amateur poetry anthologies, they are probably not yet ready to serve in the nation’s leading poetry position. With that caveat, let us know which poet you think deserves to serve as the next Poet Laureate!

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