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The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Current Poet Laureate > About the Position
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Archer HuntingtonArcher Milton Huntington

As the nation’s official poet, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

The Poet Laureate is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress, for a term that lasts from September to May. The Laureate gives a reading to open the Library’s annual literary series and a lecture to conclude the series, the oldest in the Washington area and among the oldest in the United States.

History of the Poetry Consultantship

In 1936 philanthropist Archer M. Huntington provided an endowment for the "maintenance of a chair of Poetry of the English language in the Library of Congress." The position has existed under two separate titles: from 1937 to 1986 as "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress" and from 1986 forward as "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry." The name was changed by an act of Congress (Public Law 99-194), which states that the position “is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.”

The first Consultant in Poetry, Joseph Auslander, was appointed in 1937 without a definite term. After Archibald MacLeish became Librarian of Congress in 1939, he decided the consultantship should be filled on a rotating basis. Throughout the 1940s, each consultant served for only one year. Beginning with Conrad Aiken in 1950, consultants have frequently served a second term if circumstances permitted. The history of this unique literary post up to 1986 is chronicled by author William McGuire in the book Poetry's Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1988.

Duties and Projects of the Poet Laureate

Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg in the Library of Congress' Whittall Pavilion, May 2, 1960Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg in the Library's Whittall Pavilion, May 2, 1960

The Library of Congress keeps to a modest minimum the specific official duties it requires of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to afford each incumbent maximum freedom to work on his or her own projects while at the Library. Each appointee brings a new emphasis to the position. Some consultants have organized and chaired literary festivals and conferences; others have filled their calendars with speaking engagements at schools and universities or by receiving the worldwide literary public in the Poetry Room. Since 1991, following the lead of Joseph Brodsky, the Poets Laureate have frequently designed programs with a national reach.

  • Allen Tate served as editor of the Library's Quarterly Journal during his tenure and edited the compilation Sixty American Poets, 1896-1944;
  • Maxine Kumin initiated a popular women's series of poetry workshops at the Poetry and Literature Center;
  • Howard Nemerov conducted poetry seminars at the Library for high school English classes;
  • Gwendolyn Brooks managed popular lunchtime poetry readings;
  • Rita Dove brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists, and championed children's poetry and jazz with poetry events;
  • Robert Hass organized the "Watershed" conference that brought together noted novelists, poets and storytellers to talk about writing, nature and community.
  • Robert Pinsky initiated the Favorite Poem Project, dedicated to celebrating, documenting and promoting poetry's role in Americans' lives;
  • Billy Collins started a continuing website, Poetry 180, a poem-a-day project designed with high school students in mind;
  • Ted Kooser started American Life in Poetry, a free, weekly poetry column to newspapers across the United States;
  • Kay Ryan created Poetry for the Mind’s Joy, a national initiative to promote the hard work of the staffs and students in American community colleges;
  • Natasha Trethewey founded Where Poetry Lives, a series of reports with PBS NewsHour’s Poetry Series to explore societal issues through poetry's focused lens;
  • Juan Felipe Herrera created La Casa de Colores in his first term, a two-pronged project he described as “a house for all voices”; in his second term, he launched three projects: The Technicolor Adventures of Catalina Neon, Wordstreet Champions and Brave Builders of the Dream, and a performance/classroom space in his hometown called the “Laureate Lab—Visual Wordist Studio.”