Warren Is Named First Poet Laureate of the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren’s appointment as the first official poet laureate of the United States heralded an official change in the title of national poetry consultant, helped distinguish the role of American poet laureate from that of its long-standing British equivalent, and established a legislatively sanctioned guardian of American verse.

Summary of Event

A poet laureate of sorts had existed in the United States since 1937, one year after philanthropist and railroad-fortune heir Archer M. Huntington donated private funds for an annually appointed “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress,” as the endowed chair was called until 1986. The librarian of Congress would appoint to the post a distinguished poet whose chief duty was to provide advice regarding the English-language programs, books, manuscripts, and other poetry-related holdings for the national library in Washington, D.C. In 1985, after years of debate and legislation aimed at formalizing the title and scope of work for an American laureate, Congress passed a law adding “poet laureate” to the existing consultancy title. Since 1986, the position has been called the “poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress”; informally, it is “poet laureate.” Robert Penn Warren, who had held the position some forty years earlier when it existed under a different name, was the first to assume the newly titled post. Poet laureate, U.S. [kw]Warren Is Named First Poet Laureate of the United States (Feb. 26, 1986) [kw]First Poet Laureate of the United States, Warren Is Named (Feb. 26, 1986) [kw]Poet Laureate of the United States, Warren Is Named First (Feb. 26, 1986) [kw]United States, Warren Is Named First Poet Laureate of the (Feb. 26, 1986) Poet laureate, U.S. [g]North America;Feb. 26, 1986: Warren Is Named First Poet Laureate of the United States[06040] [g]United States;Feb. 26, 1986: Warren Is Named First Poet Laureate of the United States[06040] [c]Literature;Feb. 26, 1986: Warren Is Named First Poet Laureate of the United States[06040] Warren, Robert Penn Boorstin, Daniel J. Matsunaga, Spark Huntington, Archer M. Reagan, Ronald Auslander, Joseph Brooks, Gwendolyn

The term “laureate” in the blended title comes from the early Greek tradition of adorning honorees with crowns of leaves from the laurel tree. America’s poet laureate is considered its finest bard, chosen by the Librarian of Congress in a decision-making process involving former poetry consultants, literary scholars, and sometimes members of Congress or the president.

Robert Penn Warren.

(©Washington Post; reproduced by permission of the D.C. Public Library)

The establishment of an American poet laureateship was championed by Hawaii’s Democratic senator Spark Matsunaga, an occasional poet and steadfast congressional advocate of human rights. Matsunaga felt that America would benefit from a duly named and legally condoned poet laureateship: “If the lessons of human experience were all written in verse, we might better learn and remember them,” wrote Matsunaga. Beginning in 1963—first as a U.S. representative and then as senator—Matsunaga introduced legislation for an American equivalent to the British post of poet laureate. The American version was rooted in, but did not fully imitate, English tradition.

Since creating an official post for John Dryden in 1668, British monarchs have installed a poet laureate to write verse for national ceremonies and royal births, marriages, and the like. British poets laureate—William Wordsworth and Robert Bridges once among them—receive an honorarium and wine allowance, are part of the royal household, and hold the position for life. In America, poets who read their work at presidential inaugurations also contribute to state occasions; eminent poetry consultant Robert Frost, for example, read memorable verse at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 presidential inauguration. However, not all poets who read at inaugurations are laureates, and protocol and allegiances differ in a democracy without royals. Academic issues, monetary concerns, and politics gradually shaped an American poet laureateship.

Initially, Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin felt that a separate, British-style poet laureateship would diminish the status of the consultancy in poetry, and he did not want a poet laureate reporting directly to the American president, as Matsunaga first proposed. Scholars feared a government-affiliated laureateship might jeopardize funds allotted by the National Endowment for the Arts National Endowment for the Arts for the consultant’s annual poetry reading: Taxpayers disputed funds whenever poets stirred controversy, such as when Robert Lowell disrobed in public and when Ezra Pound was suspected of treason. Nevertheless, “poet laureate” was eventually added to the consultantship title, forging a single title. By a 1985 act of Congress, the American poet laureateship secured a $35,000 stipend and an office and assistant in Washington, D.C., without direct ties to the White House. Warren gave a nod to the American rebirth of the post when he accepted it in 1986: “Of course, it’s not the same as the English version. There they write stuff celebrating the throne. I don’t expect you’ll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.”

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In naming Warren the first official poet laureate of the United States, Boorstin called him “a characteristically American man of letters in the range and versatility of his writings and in his feelings for the promise and the frustration of American life.” Indeed, Warren had truly mastered many literary forms by 1986. With a distinctly Southern voice, the Kentucky-born author had drawn on regional tradition, lore, and history to publish some fourteen volumes of poetry—including two Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;poetry winners, Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957) Promises (Warren) and Now and Then (1978) Now and Then (Warren) —and at least ten novels, along with short stories, critical essays, plays, studies of race relations, and books on such literary giants as Herman Melville. He had cofounded the Southern Review, a highly influential literary magazine. Understanding Poetry (1938), an anthology advancing the precise literary analysis called New Criticism, remained a college text long after Warren and colleague Cleanth Brooks first published it. Warren had been a Rhodes Scholar, a professor at Yale and other top universities, and a recipient of many American literary prizes, including the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Medal for Literature. His probe of human yearning and fallibility, and the frequent mix of politics, power, and corruption in his work, had enduring appeal. When Columbia Pictures turned Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning political novel into a movie, the author gained widespread acclaim. All the King’s Men won the 1949 Oscar for Best Picture.

As poet laureate, Warren was expected to survey collections of poetry at the Library of Congress and recommend new purchases. He was responsible for overseeing the recordings of poets reading their work for Library of Congress audio and video archives. He was also required to hold an annual lecture and a public poetry reading, as well as organize a conference of American poets. Beyond these responsibilities, the job carried few specific duties, although it had changed considerably since Joseph Auslander became the first poetry consultant in 1937. Originally conceived as a haven for poets to compose their own verse, the position had evolved into an ambassadorship for the craft of poetry.

When then librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish had appointed Warren to succeed Allen Tate as the nation’s top poetry consultant from 1944 to 1945, Warren moved to Washington, D.C., for the service year. When he succeeded poet Gwendolyn Brooks in 1986, Warren elected to fulfill his duties as visitor (he had homes in Connecticut and Vermont) rather than resident of the capital city. Unfortunately, ill health eventually hampered Warren’s service and travel. His voice gave out at a public poetry reading in October, 1986. In 1987, when thirty poets gathered in the capital to mark the end of Warren’s term as poet laureate, he was too ill to be present for the occasion. On September 15, 1989, three years after he had become America’s first official poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren died of cancer.

Significance

With so accomplished and favored a man of letters as Robert Penn Warren as the first poet laureate of the United States, the laureateship itself gained immediate prestige and credibility. It further distinguished Warren’s final professional years in Washington, D.C., and beyond. Through 1970, the average age of poetry consultants was under forty-eight years; as an octogenarian when he became poet laureate, Warren represented the subsequent wave of older poetry appointees.

For Senator Spark Matsunaga, the naming of the first American poet laureate marked the positive culmination of an extensive legislative campaign. Matsunaga was overwhelmingly pleased with the choice of Warren, whom he felt would inspire talented young American poets to reach for the highest position in their art. Indeed, attention to the new honorific not only brought greater visibility to poetry in general but also may have encouraged the naming of state poets. Thirty-four states now have their own poets laureate, a number of whom earned their titles by winning regional poetry competitions. Poet laureate, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997. Covers daily routines and formal duties of Warren’s two terms as top poetry consultant. Tells how friendships and health affected his service. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronin, Gloria L., and Ben Siegel. Conversations with Robert Penn Warren. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Interviews spanning 1939-1985. Includes a 1976 conversation with journalist Bill Moyers, during which Warren reflects on childhood, democracy, and American identity. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 22. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Argues that Warren was a thoroughly Southern, versatile, and inventive man of letters in an age of celebrity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGuire, William. Poetry’s Catbird Seat: The Consultantship in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress, 1937-1987. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988. History of the position drawn from documents in the Library of Congress archives. Details the appointment process. Traces controversies surrounding specific poets and literary awards.

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