The U.S. Poet Laureate is "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans" -- that is, according to the Library of Congress, which each year selects the holder of the position (though some people stay in the post for more than one year.)
What does that description mean? In truth, it means an annual stipend of $35,000, which comes from a private foundation, plus a great deal of press attention, and virtually no obligations. The idea is that the money helps to free up the chosen person's time to work on her poetry, and to promote the medium in any way she feels appropriate. The name of the latest holder of the post, Philip Levine, was announced yesterday. Since being announced, his books have sold out on Amazon.com. The 83-year-old former Pulitzer Prize winner made it clear that he saw the role as an opportunity to get his opinions heard by a wider public. "I would like to use the 'bully pulpit,' as they call it, to bring attention to some of my concerns," he told the Associated Press. "You can speak to a larger public than has been waiting for you in recent years."
Shortly before his tenure ended, the previous U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, used the media glare of his position to speak publicly against the extinction of species at the hands of humankind.
Is this going beyond the job description? Perhaps not. A Time magazine article published in 1980 suggested that the "bully pulpit" should be an essential part of the role, with each laureate "granted a guarantee of immunity, like Lear's Fool, to criticize Government policy as he wishes."
Yet for those who choose it, there is another potentially important role for the U.S. poet laureate. This was highlighted under the laureateship of Billy Collins, who held the position at the time of the 9/11 attacks. His poem "The Names" commemorated those who died on 9/11, and he performed it a few days before the first anniversary of the attacks, to a special joint session of Congress.
In those moments when the words of newscasters and politicians no longer describe what we are going through, perhaps that is when we most need a national poet.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this contained an incorrect spelling of the name of the former poet laureate. The correct spelling is W.S. Merwin.