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June 12, 2014

Librarian of Congress Appoints Charles Wright Poet Laureate

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington today announced the appointment of Charles Wright as the Library’s 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2014-2015.

Wright will take up his duties in the fall, opening the Library’s annual literary season with a reading of his work at the Coolidge Auditorium on Thursday, September 25.

"Charles Wright is a master of the meditative, image-driven lyric," said Billington. "For almost 50 years his poems have reckoned with what he calls ‘language, landscape, and the idea of God.’ Wright’s body of work combines a Southern sensibility with an allusive expansiveness, for moments of singular musicality."

Wright succeeds Natasha Trethewey as Poet Laureate. She said, "I am delighted by the appointment of Charles Wright, a poet whose work I have long admired. His deep and abiding knowledge of poetry—his belief in its power to sustain us—makes him precisely the kind of advocate we need in the post."

Wright joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and Rita Dove.

The new Poet Laureate is the author of 24 collections of poems. His most recent book is "Caribou" (2014), which Publishers Weekly calls "a dexterous balance of lightness in dark ... rife with nihilism, humor, and beauty." Wright’s major honors include the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for "Black Zodiac"; the National Book Award for "Country Music: Selected Early Poems"; the Bollingen Prize for "Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems"; and the International Griffin Poetry Prize for "Scar Tissue." In 2008 he received the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize for lifetime achievement in poetry, from the Library of Congress.

Born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright discovered the poetry of Ezra Pound and in response began writing poems while stationed in Italy during his four years of service in the U.S. Army. He received degrees from Davidson College and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and published his first collection of poems, "The Grave of the Right Hand," in 1970.

Wright has also published two books of essays, "Quarter Notes" (1995) and "Halflife" (1988) as part of the University of Michigan Press "Poets on Poetry" series, and has translated three poetry collections: Dino Campana’s "Orphic Songs" (1984) and Eugenio Montale’s "Motets" (1981) and "The Storm and Other Poems" (1978), the latter of which received the PEN Translation Prize.

Wright taught for many years at the University of Virginia, where he was the Souder Family Professor of English. He also taught at the University of California-Irvine and Universita Degli Studi in Florence, Italy.

His awards also include the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Wright was elected as a member to the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 1991 and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995, and in 2002 he was elected as a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999-2003.

For downloadable photos of Wright, please visit www.loc.gov/pressroom/. (New visitors to the site will need to establish an account to receive the user name and password.)

Background of the Laureateship

The Poet Laureate is selected for a one-year term by the Librarian of Congress. The choice is based on poetic merit alone and has included a wide variety of poetic styles.

The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate, who opens the literary season in October and closes it in May. Laureates, in recent years, have initiated poetry projects that broaden the audiences for poetry.

In 2013-2014 Natasha Trethewey launched "Where Poetry Lives," a series of on-location reports as part of the PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series. These reports, in locations across the country, explored societal issues through poetry's focused lens. For more information, visit www.pbs.org/newshour/tag/where-poetry-lives/ (external link).

Earlier, 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 titled "Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora," featuring panel discussions, readings and music. Robert Hass sponsored a major conference on nature writing called "Watershed," which continues today as a national poetry competition for elementary, middle and high-school students, titled "River of Words." Robert Pinsky initiated his Favorite Poem Project, which energized a nation of poetry readers to share their favorite poems in readings across the country and in audio and video recordings. Billy Collins instituted the website Poetry180, www.loc.gov/poetry/180/, which brought a poem a day into every high-school classroom in all parts of the country via the central announcement system.

More recently, Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column, at www.americanlifeinpoetry.org (external link), that features a brief poem by a contemporary American poet and an introduction to the poem by Kooser. Donald Hall participated in the first-ever joint poetry readings of the U.S. Poet Laureate and British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion in a program called "Poetry Across the Atlantic," also sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Kay Ryan launched "Poetry for the Mind’s Joy" in 2009-2010, a project that focused on the poetry being written by community-college students. The project included visits to various community colleges and a poetry contest on the campuses. For more information on Ryan’s project, visit www.loc.gov/poetry/mindsjoy/.

The Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1936, when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library. 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 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The Poet Laureate suggests authors to read in the literary series and plans other special events during the literary season.

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

  • Joseph Auslander, 1937-1941
  • Allen Tate, 1943-1944
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1944-1945
  • Louise Bogan, 1945-1946
  • Karl Shapiro, 1946-1947
  • Robert Lowell, 1947-1948
  • Leonie Adams, 1948-1949
  • Elizabeth Bishop, 1949-1950
  • Conrad Aiken, 1950-1952, the first to serve two terms
  • William Carlos Williams, appointed in 1952 but did not serve
  • Randall Jarrell, 1956-1958
  • Robert Frost, 1958-1959
  • Richard Eberhart, 1959-1961
  • Louis Untermeyer, 1961-1963
  • Howard Nemerov, 1963-1964
  • Reed Whittemore, 1964-1965
  • Stephen Spender, 1965-1966
  • James Dickey, 1966-1968
  • William Jay Smith, 1968-1970
  • William Stafford, 1970-1971
  • Josephine Jacobsen, 1971-1973
  • Daniel Hoffman, 1973-1974
  • Stanley Kunitz, 1974-1976
  • Robert Hayden, 1976-1978
  • William Meredith, 1978-1980
  • Maxine Kumin, 1981-1982
  • Anthony Hecht, 1982-1984
  • Robert Fitzgerald, 1984-1985
  • Reed Whittemore, 1984-1985, Interim Consultant in Poetry
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, 1985-1986
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1986-1987, first to be Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry
  • Richard Wilbur, 1987-1988
  • Howard Nemerov, 1988-1990
  • Mark Strand, 1990-1991
  • Joseph Brodsky, 1991-1992
  • Mona Van Duyn, 1992-1993
  • Rita Dove, 1993-1995
  • Robert Hass, 1995-1997
  • Robert Pinsky, 1997-2000
  • Stanley Kunitz, 2000-2001
  • Billy Collins, 2001-2003
  • Louise Glück, 2003-2004
  • Ted Kooser, 2004-2006
  • Donald Hall, 2006-2007
  • Charles Simic, 2007-2008
  • Kay Ryan, 2008-2010
  • W.S. Merwin 2010-2011
  • Philip Levine 2011-2012
  • Natasha Trethewey 2012-2014

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds more than 158 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library serves the U.S. Congress and the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its award-winning website at www.loc.gov.

More information on the Poet Laureate and the Poetry and Literature Center can be found at www.loc.gov/poetry/.

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PR 14-101
06/12/14
ISSN 0731-3527

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