The Poets Laureate Anthology Edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt

The Library of Congress recently collaborated with Elizabeth Hun Schmidt to collect a select group of poems from the 43 U.S. Poets Laureate in The Poets Laureate Anthology, which lays out the poems in reverse chronological order (click for a list of the poets laureate) from the current laureate W.S. Merwin through the first poet laureate Joseph Auslander.  The table of contents also points out that poems in brackets listed for each laureate are considered their signature poems.  The collection contains a foreword by former poet laureate Billy Collins and an introduction by the editor, Elizabeth Hun Schmidt.

In the foreword, Billy Collins reveals the ceremony or lack thereof that comes with the office of U.S. Poet Laureate, noting that there is no formal naming ceremony, simply a phone call from the Librarian of Congress who selects the latest laureate.  The post does come with an office in the Jefferson Building, but each laureate approaches the appointment differently, though former laureate Howard Nemerov explained that the laureate spends more time explaining the duties he or she performs than actually accomplishing much.

Elizabeth Hun Schmidt’s introduction discusses the placement of the poet laureate’s office in a remote wing of the Library of Congress near the rooms used by U.S. House teenage pages, “You might think our country wants to both flaunt and to hide the fact that the only official job in the arts in the United States is for a poet” (page xiv of The Poets Laureate Anthology, published by W.W. Norton in association with the Library of Congress).  The office of Poet Laureate actually receives mail, and appointed laureates often travel the country exposing new people and communities to poetry, but only Robert Frost was asked to read at a presidential inauguration.

It is clear that some laureates were more active than others, engaging the community either through “brown-bag lunches,” educational projects, or through Websites and lectures.  Billy Collins is the most well-known for his work on Poetry 180, but Ted Kooser also began a project to garner a wider audience for poetry — American Life in Poetry.  Readers will applaud these poets for their commitment to a wider audience, including students, to erase the wall between readers and poetry.  Other laureates focused more on helping amateur poets hone their craft.  But each approached the office as differently as they tackle their verses, and it is this variety that makes the anthology unique, resembling a history of U.S. poetry.

Collins, like many readers, approached this anthology as a way to familiarize themselves with poetry piece-by-piece, dipping back into it over the course of their lives.  Anthologies are often created with this purpose in mind, and many are crafted to provide a reference for the best selections of a certain genre.  In this case, it’s poetry.  Each anecdotal comment from the laureates and their biographical snippets provide a backdrop for the poems that follow, but which, if any, of these poems were written while the laureates were in office is unclear.  Readers may have found it interesting to see which laureates wrote poems during their tenure and to read those poems for themselves.

Overall, The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt is a collection worth adding to anyone’s library shelves.  Whether looking for poems by a particular laureate or searching for a particular poem, the anthology provides a broad look at each poet’s efforts to define their moments, their lives, and humanity.  Reaching into history or dealing in the present, these laureates earned the title and executed the office with aplomb, and this anthology celebrates their accomplishments.  Readers looking to dip into poetry will enjoy this volume as much as those who dive deep into verse on a regular basis because it offers something for everyone.



This is my 9th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 15th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


***This is a part of the National Poetry Month 2011 Blog Tour.


  1. I have this volume! I’m still looking through it all; it’s fascinating learning about the different poet laureates throughout history. Should I admit that I spent a long time gazing at W.S Merwin’s picture — what an arresting-looking man.

    I do wish that there were more official govermental jobs in the arts in order to promote the arts. Maybe this anthology will bring that issue to light to more people (possibly wishful thinking on my part).

  2. A wonderful anthology! This is on my wish list for sure. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think this is a great anthology for people who aren’t that into poetry. There’s something for everyone. I didn’t think about them pointing out which poems were written during their time as laureate, but that would have been a nice addition.

    • I really had hoped that would be covered, but I’m fine with it not being included since some didn’t write it all it seems or some wrote novels instead. LOL