Poetry Month Recommendation: The Poets Laureate Anthology

The Poets Laureate Anthology. Edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt. Norton. 2010.

Let’s face it. An anthology is rarely an 100% hit. There are some poems and poets that will leave you cold while others you return to again and again. But the thing about an anthology is the next time you find yourself leafing through, some of those poets you disdained, didn’t get, or just didn’t like will suddenly speak to you and you’ll mark those as favorites. At least that’s my experience, and it’s one of the reasons I love anthologies.

Now I haven’t finished (if you can ever really finish a book of poetry) The  Poets Laureate Anthology, but already, I have marked 50 or so poems as those that I have to go back to. I have underlined verses as stirring, special, or just plain beautiful.

But The Poets Laureate Anthology is also a history of American poetry since 1937 when Joseph Auslander was named the first consultant in poetry, the name later changed to poet laureate in 1986, to the current laureate, W.S. Merwin.  Schmidt’s introductions both tell a little about the poetry and contributions each laureate made during his/her tenure. It’s also interesting to see the difference in poetic styles and forms over the years.

Some of the poets will be familiar to anyone who studied literature in high school and college: Robert Penn Warren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams are all here. Others will may not be known outside those who make the effort to keep up with poetry: Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, and Ted Kooser. Some were new to me, and I have two degrees in English.

Equally entertaining is Billy Collins’s foreword to the book. He notes that the position comes with a nice office with a view of the Capitol. He adds the job description is fairly nonexistent: “Apart from giving an annual reading and lecture, it appeared that the poet laureate was free to sit behind his desk and practice the art of Sudoku.” Still Collins used his tenure to promote the understanding and appreciation of poetry in his project “Poetry 180,” a poem a day for students without “the attendant pains of explication.”

The Poets Laureate Anthology is the sort of book that allows novices to get their poetic feet wet and for poetry enthusiasts to revel in memories and new finds. It certainly was a most enjoyable find for me this Poetry month.


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