Rest On Your Laureates

April 5, 2013

April is National Poetry Month. A lot of people ask why poetry needs its own month for special recognition. Why isn’t there a National Painting Month, or a National Music Month? The answer is simple: painters and musicians can make a living painting or performing, but poetry barely pays enough for a cup of coffee at a dingy truck stop. Poets have to take a second job doing something like teaching, and usually a third job pouring coffee at dingy truck stops, just to make ends meet. The only exception to this rule is Russia, where being a poet is so highly revered a profession you can be sent to Siberia for confusing a metaphor and a simile. This wasn’t always the case, though. There was a time when poets could make a reasonably decent living, usually by selling their books, something unheard of today. A few lucky poets in Britain and the United States, though, manage to score the position of Poet Laureate. It’s a term that derives from ancient Greece when poets would sometimes be crowned with laurel wreaths, since the only art the Greeks revered more highly than poetry was topiary.

Although it wasn’t always formally recognized the position of Poet Laureate has a long history in Britain, where one the first poets to unofficially hold the post was Ben Johnson. He received a large barrel of Canary wine, and even though that’s only about a week’s supply of wine for most poets he got by for another month eating the canaries. Britain’s first official Poet Laureate, though, as established by Parliament, was John Dryden, whose responsibilities included writing verse for significant royal occasions. He was fired from the job for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to William III, and also for being unable to explain the difference between a synecdoche and metonymy. In addition to the barrel of wine Poets Laureate were also paid £200, which, adjusted for inflation, made Thomas Shadwell the 17th century equivalent of J.K. Rowling. Some also supplemented the income by dabbling in other things, like William Whitehead who discovered the difference between a cape and a cloak. And Britain still has the position of official Poet Laureate. It now pays a little more than £5,000, although due to austerity cuts the traditional barrel of wine has been replaced with a six-pack of Bass ale. The most notable thing about the position now is that the Poet Laureate is the only person in Britain who’s paid to not write about the royal family. The United States also has a Poet Laureate, appointed annually by the Librarian of the United States Congress, even though most librarians spend their time cataloging poetry rather than reading it. Originally the position was Poetry Consultant To The Library Of Congress, and mostly consisted of hanging around the library hoping no one would come in and ask what the difference is between a synecdoche and metonymy. The title was changed to Poet Laureate in 1986, and now pays a salary of $35,000, which, among poets, makes the U.S. Poet Laureate the financial equivalent of Bill Gates. While the position almost always goes to a poet who is highly regarded enough that most people will, when told the poet’s name, say, “Sounds familiar” there have been some very famous poets who never held the position. Here are some examples:

-Before there was a U.S. Poet Laureate Walt Whitman was considered for the position by Abraham Lincoln, until someone pointed out that it was “a British thing”, causing Lincoln to declare “this country needs a Poet Laureate like I need a hole in the head.”

-Emily Dickinson almost became the first U.S. Poet Laureate, but wouldn’t come down from her room for an interview.

-Robert Frost was almost offered the position of U.S. Poet Laureate, but the committee sent to tell him kept going down the wrong path.

-W.H. Auden was suggested as a British Poet Laureate but since he’d moved to Switzerland he remained neutral.

-Hart Crane had ambitions to be the first U.S.-born British Poet Laureate but failed in his attempt to swim from New York to Liverpool.

-T.S. Eliot was offered the opportunity to become both the U.S. and British Poet Laureate. The selection process ultimately got bogged down in questions of whether a recording of him reading “The Wasteland” could be used as an alternative soundtrack for “The Wizard of Oz”.

-The position in Britain was offered to Dylan Thomas then withdrawn it after it was determined that he’d in fact plagiarized “Through the teeth, over the gums,/Look out stomach, here it comes!” from Swinburne.

-John Ashbery was suggested as U.S. Poet Laureate, but the Librarian of the United States Congress refused, saying, “I don’t read The New Yorker.”

-W.B. Yeats was considered for Britain’s Poet Laureate until thorough genealogical research uncovered the shocking discovery that he was, in fact, Irish.

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