The journey to the office of the United States poet laureate in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is full of grand passages and unexpected turns, befitting the rich and somewhat vexed history of the state-sanctioned poet here and abroad. On the one hand, few buildings are as glorious a celebration of the marriage of the cultivated mind and the republic as the Jefferson Building, built one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the Italian Renaissance style that Thomas Jefferson believed to be the paragon of stately architecture. No writer has a more august place in which to work. On the other hand—well, good luck finding the tucked-away nook called the Poetry Office on the high floor of its remote wing in the Library, at the end of a narrow unmarked hall lined mostly with rooms set aside for the House of Representatives’ teenage pages. You might think our country wants both to flaunt and to hide the fact that the only official job in the arts in the United States is for a poet. Ambivalence about poetry’s place in politics extends back to the earliest writing we have on art and civilization. Over two and half millennia ago, Plato kicked poets out of his ideal republic because their poems distracted philosopher-kings and their charges from ordered, rational thought: “Poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up. She lets them rule although they ought to be controlled.” Plato did make an exception for poets who increased “happiness and virtue” by composing “hymns to gods and praises of famous men.” These days many classical scholars argue that we shouldn’t take Plato too literally on this one. While it is true, they point out, that Plato dismissed the emotional content of popular sagas like Homer’s Odyssey, he nevertheless peppers his discourse with poetic flourishes like dramatic personae who speak in pleasing meters and use allusions, complex allegories, and vivid metaphors. Plato well knew, as have most revered politicians, that no one listens to prose that is too literal and didactic. Humans respond to figurative language. We remember sections of speeches because of their striking cadence and imagery. Poets are masters, most of them painstakingly trained, at cultivating such language, and politicians need some poetry in their rhetoric in order to charm, instruct, and lead the masses. In ancient Greece the laurel was sacred to the god Apollo, patron of music and fine arts, and was used to form a wreath for poets and heroes. In the Middle Ages the Romans publicly conferred the title of laureate upon Francesco Petrarch for his classical scholarship and a long Latin epic he wrote celebrating Italy’s connection to the ancient world. Reprinted from The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt with The Library of Congress. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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