I bet you know who took home the Oscar for Best Picture this year, even if you didn’t watch the awards ceremony or watch any of the contenders. You might even be able to recall several of the winners over the past decade. But do you have any idea who the current Poet Laureate is? Or even what a Poet Laureate is? I’ll spare you the guessing game, because I didn’t know either: The current Poet Laureate of the United States is Tracy K. Smith, whose collection or poems Life on Mars earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. I feel especially humbled by this bit of national trivia because I actually own (and have read) a copy of the book.
I read more than the average person and even took a few poetry classes in college, but until doing some research, I only had a vague idea of what a Poet Laureate was supposed to do. Smith envisioned her position of Poet Laureate as that of an oracle that engages with the national consciousness. “Poetry can help us make sense of the contemporary moment,” she told the Washington Post, shortly after her appointment. “I’m excited by the fact that what poets are writing speaks to a particular moment and it speaks to the ages. Any political moment is uncertain, and a voice that lets us think about that will last.” Zeroing in on what she imagined her tenure might address, she mentioned the concepts of empathy, perspective, grey areas, and complexity. Awards shows can allow us to rally around art and consciousness on a national scale too, but unlike the Poet Laureate who is appointed on behalf of the American people, Hollywood isn’t working for us.
According to data cited by the Washington Post, in 2015, only 43 percent of adults reported having read at least one novel, short story, poem or play within the past year — which sounds pretty sad, if you think about it. I mean, really? Not one single poem? A downward reading trend has been happening ever since at least the 1980s, coinciding with the hypnotic pull of the television, the OG of time-sucking screens. It’s no wonder that we devote so much of our attention and respect to artists who work in television and film, lionizing them whether or not they deserve it, while neglecting the Poet Laureate that we didn’t know we needed.
A Poet Laureate in Action
For her first term as Poet Laureate, which began in the summer of 2017, Smith edited American Journal, an anthology of 50 poems that expresses the diverse stories of America in a way that fosters connections across the expanse of the country. “I think of American Journal as a 21st Century prayer book, a testament to the ways that poems can shed meaningful light upon the most vivid and powerful aspects of our lives,” she shared in a statement. Part of the country was preoccupied with anxiety and introspection over its identity, another part was soaking in the balm of a Great American fantasy, and the rest were weary over never being heard. As Poet Laureate, Smith was in a position to create an anthology that was tailored to our collective needs.
As the mood became more divisive through 2018, Smith spent much of her second term as Poet Laureate traveling through rural America with the intention of introducing (or reintroducing) poetry through her anthology to people in communities who are perhaps less plugged into a national forum than, for instance, people who live in college towns or big cities. “I imagined that talking about poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers,” she explained. You can catch excerpts of different communities’ responses to American Journal as part of her project “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities.” She told one local paper, “My hope was the having these kinds of conversations would disprove this theory of a divided nation that we hear about so often, and I think it has.”