Just What Is a Poet Laureate?: Background information when reading The Best of It

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The Best of It

New and Selected Poems

by Kay Ryan

The Best of It by Kay Ryan
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Just What Is a Poet Laureate?

Print Review

The United States Poet Laureate* is appointed annually by the Library of Congress, and is poetically described by the LOC as the "official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans." (Personally, I like the very idea of a "collective poetic impulse," and find its acknowledgement and promotion by an institution of the federal government deeply heartening!) The Laureate's job is to promote poetry in the national consciousness however he or she wishes, often by implementing public programs and education in schools. They also head an annual poetry reading series at the Library. The Laureate receives a stipend of $35,000 (which when the stipend was originally instituted served as quite a nice living for a poet, but now serves as more of a bonus to the Laureate who usually earns a living teaching at a university.)

Since 1937, the Librarian of Congress (currently James H. Billington) has appointed poets to the position, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Billy Collins. In making the choice, the Librarian consults with former Poets Laureate, the current Laureate, and poetry critics.

As the 16th Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan recently launched the Community College Poetry Project, in an effort to highlight poetry in community colleges nationwide. Ryan has taught remedial English at community colleges for more than 30 years, and is a faculty member at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif. "I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly - and with very little financial encouragement - saving lives and minds," said Ryan. "I can't think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle."


*There are also State Poets Laureate, as well as Poets Laureate for some cities and communities: Tina Chang was recently named Brooklyn's Poet Laureate! Many other countries around the world also appoint Poets Laureate.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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