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March 28, 1997

Librarian Appoints Robert Pinsky Poet Laureate

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has announced the appointment of Robert Pinsky to be the Library's ninth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He will take up his duties in the fall of 1997, opening the Library's annual literary series in October with a reading of his work. Mr. Pinsky succeeds Robert Hass (whose term ends this May). Robert Hass, who served two years as the eighth Poet Laureate, will deliver his final lecture at the Library on May 1 at 6:45 p.m.

"We are fortunate to have a poet of Robert Pinsky's versatility and wide interests as Poet Laureate," said Dr. Billington. "His accomplishments in translation, his interest in making poetry accessible through digital technology on the Internet, and his own probing poetry promise an exciting year for us in Washington."

In commenting on his appointment, Robert Pinsky said: "American poetry has been one of our great national achievements. Along with the honor of following the American poets who have held this post, I have an opportunity to continue our appreciation of that treasure. I am very pleased."

Robert Pinsky teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Boston University. He is the author of five books of poetry: "Sadness and Happiness" (1975); "An Explanation of America" (1979), awarded the Saxifrage Prize as the year's best volume of poetry from a small or university press; "History of My Heart" (1983), which won the William Carlos Williams Prize; "The Want Bone" (1990); and "The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems", 1966-1996 (1996). He is the translator of "The Separate Notebooks", by Czeslaw Milosz (1983). His verse translation of "The Inferno of Dante"(1994) was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, given by the Academy of American Poets. He also was given the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award last year. In addition to his poetry, Mr. Pinsky is the author of three collections of essays: "Landor's Poetry" (1968), "The Situation of Poetry" (1977) and "Poetry and the World" (1988). Having served as poetry editor of "The New Republic" through much of the 1980s, he is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate.

Poet and essayist Katha Pollitt writes in The New York Times Book Review that "The Figured Wheel" "will remind readers that here is a poet who, without forming a mini-movement or setting himself loudly at odds with the dominant tendencies of American poetry, has brought into it something new -- beginning with his first volume . . . and gathering authority with each subsequent book. Call it a way of ... connecting the particulars of the self . . . with the largest intellectual concerns of history, culture, psychology and art.

"What makes Mr. Pinsky such a rewarding and exciting writer," she continues, "is the sense he gives, in the very shape and structure of his poems, of getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is always repeated but also always new."

Mr. Pinsky's translation of "The Inferno" into contemporary verse form has elicited wide acclaim. Poet Richard Howard writes: "Pinsky is the first American poet (perhaps because he is an American poet) to give us this newness of infernal things, Dante's excited discourse which has nothing to do with famous anthology pieces, but everything with breathless and terrible discoveries."

Background of the Laureateship

The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate, in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library. Each brings a new emphasis to the position. Allen Tate (1943-44), for example, served as editor of the Library's now-defunct "Quarterly Journal" during his tenure and edited the compilation "Sixty American Poets", 1896-1944. Some consultants have suggested and chaired literary festivals and conferences; others have spoken in a number of schools and universities and received the public in the Poetry Room.

Maxine Kumin initiated a popular women's series of poetry workshops at the Poetry and Literature Center. Gwendolyn Brooks met with groups of elementary school children to encourage them to write poetry. Howard Nemerov conducted seminars at the Library for high school English classes. Most incumbents have furthered the development of the Library's Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in public places -- supermarkets, hotels, airports, and hospitals. Rita Dove brought a program of poetry and jazz to the Library's literary series, along with a reading by young Crow Indian poets and a two-day conference entitled "Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora," featuring panel discussions, readings, and music.

In the past two years, Robert Hass sponsored a weeklong celebration of American nature writing called "Watershed" that brought 26 poets, story writers, and essayists to the Library in April 1996. In addition, his weekly column in "The Washington Post" Book World has introduced a wide audience to a broad range of poems.

Consultants in Poetry and Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry and their terms of service are listed below:

Joseph Auslander 1937-41
Allen Tate 1943-44
Robert Penn Warren 1944-45
Louise Bogan 1945-46
Karl Shapiro 1946-47
Robert Lowell 1947-48
Leonie Adams 1948-49
Elizabeth Bishop 1949-50
Conrad Aiken
(First to serve two terms)
1950-52
William Carlos Williams
(Appointed in 1952 but did not serve)
 
Randall Jarrell 1956-58
Robert Frost 1958-59
Richard Eberhart 1959-61
Louis Untermeyer 1961-63
Howard Nemerov 1963-64
Reed Whittemore 1964-65
Stephen Spender 1965-66
James Dickey 1966-68
William Jay Smith 1968-70
William Stafford 1970-71
Josephine Jacobsen 1971-73
Daniel Hoffman 1973-74
Stanley Kunitz 1974-76
Robert Hayden 1976-78
William Meredith 1978-80
Maxine Kumin 1981-82
Anthony Hecht 1982-84
Robert Fitzgerald
(Appointed and served in a health-limited capacity, but did not come to LC)
1984-85
Reed Whittemore
(Interim Consultant in Poetry)
1984-85
Gwendolyn Brooks 1985-86
Robert Penn Warren
(First to be designated Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry)
1986-87
Richard Wilbur 1987-88
Howard Nemerov 1988-90
Mark Strand 1990-91
Joseph Brodsky 1991-92
Mona Van Duyn 1992-93
Rita Dove 1993-95
Robert Hass 1995-97

The poetry and literature reading series at the Library of Congress is the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States. This annual series of public poetry and fiction readings, lectures, symposia, and occasional dramatic performances began in the 1940s and has been almost exclusively supported since 1951 by a gift from the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who wanted to bring the appreciation of good literature to a larger audience. The Poetry and Literature Center administers the series and is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1936, when the late Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress. Since then, many of the nation's most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194, as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The Poet Laureate suggests authors to read in the literary series, plans other special literary events during the reading season, and usually introduces the programs.

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PR 97-61
4/8/97
ISSN 0731-3527

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