Charles Wright has just been named Poet Laureate of the United States. He’s written over 20 poetry collections. He is 78 years old. Like most Poets Laureate before him, this title is just about the only honor he hadn’t already received from the world of letters. Wright’s got a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a Bollingen Prize and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize to his name.
That the Laureateship is intended as a signal that a writer has reached the pinnacle of his or her profession is something of a conundrum, diversity-wise. The overwhelming majority of Poets Laureates past are also white and male.
The law that designates how the Poet Laureate is selected states that the individual be chosen “solely on the basis of merit,” and it’s hard to argue against the fact that the more critically acclaimed books you’ve published, and the more major awards you’ve won, the more you deserve this particular prize. But the problem with all of that, naturally, is they assume that these barriers to entry are somehow pure meritocracies as well; that there is no prejudice in the publishing world, that prizes are handed out just as frequently to women and writers of color as they are to men. And since they are not, there’s a systemic prejudice against minorities in the whole enterprise, one that trickles upward to the Poet Laureateship, which is chosen from a pool of the already-acclaimed. (This is the same deeply ingrained snobbery that keeps excellent young adult novels outside the club of great literature; as Kathleen Hale’s very funny, must-read piece on the issue put it, “You don’t gain credibility by being widely read, you gain credibility by being accepted by rich, white, men.”)
Robert Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, cited the many types of diversity considered during the selection process. Casper oversees a survey of experts who submit nominations for each year’s Poet Laureate. (The Laureate is ultimately selected by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who consults experts and colleagues before making the final decision.) Wright, though white and male and a senior citizen, checks a geographic diversity box, Casper pointed out; he’s only the third southern-born Poet Laureate since the position was established.
I asked him if there was an age qualification for the Poet Laureate, figuring that the pool of older acclaimed poets, who came of age before the Civil Rights movement and women’s liberation, are far more likely to be white and male than not. Casper said no, there is no hard and fast rule, although “I don’t think it’d be great to have a pre-teen Poet Laureate. You’d get a lot of calls.” He added that Natasha Trethewey was in her forties during her tenure as Poet Laureate (this kind of only proved my point; that to find an acclaimed female poet, you have to look beyond the AARP crowd).
Is the Library of Congress concerned at all about the lack of diversity in the history of the Laureateship? How can they rely on these channels to produce only the “best” when those very channels have long excluded so many non-white, non-male voices? “I think anyone who is involved, as I have been for twenty years, in a field like this, worries about it,” Casper said. “I’ve seen firsthand, from behind the scenes, how these processes work. And I would say, most often, good poetry rises to the fore. I think some bad poetry rises to the fore as well.” Prejudices, he said, evolve with the times: maybe you used to need a degree from Harvard and a home address in New York City, now you need to get your MFA at Iowa. He also said that, in choosing this year’s Laureate, he surveyed fifty people; 76 names were nominated, and just over twenty of those poets were nominated by more than one person. “They came from all sorts of parts of the country, they were very diverse gender-wise and racially.”
Then he said, “There are still issues. It’s worth looking at the VIDA count. There are groups like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop… for instance, that are working to champion particular groups and have been very effective, not only in doing that but also in point out systematic ways in which more men are published than women. So I’m very happy that that sort of thing is happening, and I think anyone who cares about the field notices that kind of thing and works to challenge any of those sorts of biases that undermine the integrity of the art.”