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We have a new Poet Laureate! Wait, what does a poet laureate do?

poetry from the Beat generation
poetry from the Beat generation
Mario Tama/ Getty

Charles Wright will be America's next poet laureate. He has published 24 books of poetry, and won almost every prize available for poetry including the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the National Book Award.

"I really don't know what I'm supposed to do," Wright told the New York Times.

The position is one of the most prestigious appointments available for American poets. Every year, the Librarian of Congress appoints a single poet for a one year term where they are supposed to serve as the "nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."  The Librarian of Congress can choose to extend a poets term for more than one year based on their poetic project. In other words, it's the poet laureate's job to foster an appreciation and love of reading and writing poetry.

How they do this, though, is really up to the individual. There are some staples of the position. The Poet Laureate receives a $35,000 stipend for their work, but the formal requirements are kept to a minimum in order to give poets the time to work on their own projects. The poet is required to give readings at the Library of Congress and are encouraged to  recruit other writers to read for the library's recorded archive, which contains sound recordings of more than 2,000 poets reading their work.

Other than those readings, though, the position is open for interpretation:

  • Joseph Brodsky, Poet Laureate 1991-1992, used his term to start a program for reading poetry in airports, and other public places.
  • Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate 1997-2000, asked 18,000 Americans what their favorite poems were and compiled them into an archive.
  • Outgoing poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (2012-) spent her two years in the appointment contributing to a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series.
  • Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate 2004-2006, wrote a weekly column for widespread publication by newspapers and online periodicals that featured a contemporary poet.
  • Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate 2008-2010, created a program for staff and students in community colleges to promote their poems on a national scale through an open poetry contest.
  • Billy Collins, Poet Laureate 2001-2003, built Poetry 180, a project that was designed to give students in American high schools a poem a day to read, hear, and keep in mind.

Not all of the federal government's efforts to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry run through the poet laureates' offices, of course. Take the 2009 White House Poetry Jam. The Obamas hosted the night to celebrate the power of words, and invited some of the best young rising stars in theatre, jazz, and spoken-word to perform.  The night was lively, fun, and full of gems like this rap about Alexander Hamilton:

But the 2009 Poetry Jam was put on by the White House, not the 2008-2009 Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. What Charles Wright chooses as his project for his term as Poet Laureate is obviously up to him, but an event, or even a YouTube channel, that glorifies one of America's written arts could be a great opportunity to bring poetry into the households of Americans.

Here are a few of Wright's poems for further reading: