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Who picks the U.S. poet laureate?

Published April 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

To find out how the Library of Congress chooses the U.S. poet laureate, Salon Books telephoned someone who should have the information: former poet laureate Mark Strand. But Strand (whose latest book, "Blizzard of One," took the Pulitzer prize last week) told us, "I don't how they choose. All you do is get a phone call." Did the library ask his opinion about possible successors? "No one has ever consulted me on any of these decisions," he said.

Strand's bewilderment echoes the sentiments of many poets and poetry lovers who have no clue as to how the post is filled. When Robert Pinksy, the poet and Dante translator, earned an unprecedented third term in office earlier this month, there was neither rhapsodic surprise nor (in the media at least) any outcry about setting limits on his Franklin Delano Roosevelt-like triumphs. Who should be commended or criticized for the choice, anyhow?

James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, is the obvious candidate. Billington, a Russia scholar who has counted Isaiah Berlin and Andrei Sakharov among his friends, announces the selection. But the man who makes the nominations for the post is the Library's director of scholarly programs, Prosser Gifford.

Strand's experience notwithstanding, Gifford reports that he consults former laureates as well as academics and critics to reach his decision. He also contacts such institutions as the Poets Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. "Basically, it's not enough to be a good poet," he told Salon Books. "It's not a position for everybody." Gifford, who has been making the nominations since 1990, points to many considerations beyond mere talent. The selections strive to balance gender, region and background. The chosen poet must want to serve as an ambassador of poetry to more prosaic folk and be able to manage with a highly un-Byronesque $35,000-a-year salary plus a small travel stipend. (The money comes not from the government but from the estate of Archer M. Huntington, the philanthropist and railway-fortune heir, who died in 1955.)

Gifford grew up in New York, studied English at Yale with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in the '50s and went to Harvard in pursuit of a law degree. After serving as the Dean of Faculty at Amherst College and deputy director of the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson Center, he took up his post at the Library of Congress, where 30 or so poets pass through each year for readings. He starts the selection process with them. To his credit, during his tenure the position has been filled by a wide diversity of poets who have displayed a wide diversity of pursuits. Joseph Brodsky, born in Russia, wanted $1 poetry paperbacks placed in hospitals. Rita Dove, an African-American, got involved in television-related projects with children. Robert Haas, who lives on the West Coast, wrote for the Washington Post and took a keen interest in environmental issues. Pinsky, an Easterner, currently heads the Favorite Poem Project, which invites American citizens to choose their favorite pieces of poetry.

Gifford thinks that a permanent group of judges would be dangerous, since it would have its own biases and prejudices. Moreover, that committee would need a committee to choose it. "Besides, after a while you know which critics like which folks," he says. So far, nobody can tell which folks Gifford prefers. And that's probably a good thing.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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