A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing The Poets Laureate Anthology, a collection of all US Poets Laureate to date, along with biographical material, photos, and essays that place their work in context of their time. This lovely book has a Foreward by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and is edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, who wrote a wonderful Introduction explaining the nature of the position, and the arrangement of this anthology.
In my review I explained how the book has helped me feel more comfortable dipping into the enjoyment of reading poetry:
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt has included not only the signature piece and other well-known verse of each Laureate, but also lesser-known poems which allow the reader to experience the scope of each poet’s work. Her introductions to each section include biographical material as well as sharing what the poet accomplished while in office and what was happening in the country (in the world) at that time. I approached the book by reading (aloud) the key poem and one or two others, then referring back to the introduction to put the work in context.
It is my further pleasure today to interview the editor, Elizabeth Hun Schmidt:
She Is Too Fond of Books: In arranging the sections of The Poets Laureate Anthology, you chose to reverse the more typical order of a historical perspective. How does a reader’s understanding of the changing (and repeating) nature of themes benefit from arranging the chapters in reverse chronological order?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: I wanted readers to start with the most engaging, contemporary poetry, on subjects that touch upon events in the more recent past (such as W.S. Merwin’s profound meditation on the tragic events of September 11, 2011.) I admire many of the poems by the older poets, but I didn’t want the volume to begin with poetic language that might at first read seem remote, or off-putting, on even, to some readers, fusty. So the choice to put the recent poets first had more to do with the language the poets’ use—their contemporary diction, usage, idioms— then with anything thematic. I’m certainly very interested to hear from readers about any thematic patterns they discover in the reading through the anthology, though I always suggest that readers begin by skipping around. It’s hard to read any anthology straight through from first poem to last.
SITFOB: As a novice reader of poetry, I definitely benefited from reader the more contemporary (more accessible to me) poetry first; and I did, as you suggest, skip around as I grew more comfortable reading it. I note that you included a range of work for each poet, aside from the signature poems for each poet laureate, what criteria did you consider when selecting the poems that are included in the anthology?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: First, I read every poem I could find by every poet, setting aside my “first read” favorites. I think most poems need to be read at least three times before they begin to open up to a reader’s mind, but I know most readers don’t have the time. In a book of this length, readers flip through the pages, read quickly, look for a poem, or even just a line, that immediately jumps off the page. So I first read for poems that grabbed me at first read. At in my case, that means poems that surprise, head off in an unexpected but enlightening direction. Then I read for “greatest hits.” I looked up the most anthologized poems by each poet and added those poems to each poet’s folder. Finally, I researched the poets’ lives and looked for poems that were either written while the poet held the post or written about a political event. Then I read through all the poems I had set aside again—first-read poems, greatest hits, and political poems, if there were any—and tried to come up with a balanced group of tried-and-true favorites and a few new surprises. It took me over three years to complete the book, and I read each poet’s selection at least four times before coming up with the final selection.
SITFOB: Oh, that’s so interesting, to learn of the three broad groupings you used! With first-reads, greatest hits, and political poems, we really do see a solid representation of each poet’s work. Understanding how you selected the poems is a nice lead-in to my next question, what are the goals of The Poets Laureate Anthology? Do you see it as a volume for those who already appreciate poetry, an introduction for novices, a reference for students, or simply (and significantly) a cohesive collection that reflects America in the 75 years since the “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” position was created?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: I have two hopes for the volume: 1) that people who consider themselves non-poetry readers find the book inviting enough to discover the primal pleasure of reading poetry and 2) that people who know they love to read poetry discover new poems or perhaps even whole new poets in reading the anthology.
SITFOB: As someone who falls into the first camp – a non-poetry reader – I can vouch that you’ve met your goal! I’ll admit I had a very foggy understanding of the role of the poet laureate before reading the essays written by you and by Billy Collins. In your research, and in talking to lay people, did you come across any anecdotal misconceptions?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: Yes! Most people I meet think the president appoints the poets laureate— and not the librarian of congress. Many people also think the that the United States Laureates read at presidential inaugurations. Not so. Robert Frost is the one, at JFK’s –and by most accounts, he stole the show. Perhaps that’s why no president since then has asked a Poet Laureate to read!
SITFOB: It’s refreshing to know that I’m not alone in my misunderstanding (or general lack of knowledge) about poetry and the Poet Laureate in particular -The poetry and background information in The Poets Laureate Anthology has certainly helped to clarify and and make me much more comfortable reading it. Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work in editing this volume, or about the importance/nature of the U.S. Poet laureate?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: Just that it was a pleasure and tremendous honor. I learned a great deal. In a few cases (Josephine Jacobsen and Robert Hayden) I learned to love poets whose work has long been hard to find, and I discovered new poems by poets I thought I new well. And I had more fun than I thought I would reading and writing about the poets’ lives for the introductions. In so many cases the poets have led courageous, iconoclastic, focused, and disciplined lives. I knew I would love the verse. I had no idea I would become captivated by just about every poets’ biography.
SITFOB: Thank you for talking with me today, and for sharing the lives and works of our Poets Laureate.