The current bill before the Legislature to establish a state poet laureate is laudable. There has been a US poet laureate since 1986; 44 states have poet laureates, as do many cities and towns across Massachusetts, including Boston. There’s only one problem with the bill: It makes no provision for remuneration, not even mileage expense for travel.
The duties of poet laureates can vary. The US poet laureate (originally called consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress) is assigned few official duties other than to give an annual poetry reading and to introduce other poets reading at the library. The main purpose has been to support the poets’ own work, giving them a bit of money (these days, $35,000) and a place to work at the library. But beginning in the early ’80s, with New Hampshire poet Maxine Kumin’s poetry workshops for women, the US poet laureate has been more activist, with poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Joseph Brodsky, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and Cambridge’s Robert Pinsky all initiating various programs, including Pinsky’s successful Favorite Poem Project, in which thousands of Americans took part.
The Massachusetts bill, sponsored by Representative Sarah K. Peake and Representative Denise Provost, calls for a poet laureate “who shall seek to raise the consciousness of all Commonwealth residents, especially school children, to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” The two-year appointment, made by the governor, would be based on the selection of a nominating committee, which would include legislators and members of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The committee would advertise the position and accept nominations.
This is all well and good. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there —.” And yet, how exactly, is a poet laureate expected to spread the news — not to mention, visit schools and raise the consciousness of school children — without at least an expense stipend for gas mileage?
It’s understandable that the co-sponsors of the bill don’t want to jeopardize it by attaching funding when the state is in the midst of cutting the budget. In fact, Peake says that she hopes that if the Mass. Cultural Council’s budget gets an increase next year, as it did this year, then money can be set aside in its budget without jeopardizing any of its existing programs. And there are probably ways in which those seeking the services of a poet laureate can offer some kind of remuneration. But some stipend, no matter how small, should be attached. Boston offers a $2,000 honorarium for its poet laureate as well as $3,000 to cover programming and administrative expenses. Somerville has announced the creation of a poet laureate position with a stipend of $2,000. Let’s hope that somehow, the state can not only pass the poet laureate bill, but find some money for it. It would be nice for this position to be more than honorary. That is, if we want the Commonwealth’s official poet to have more clout than, say, the state bird, the state song, or the state cookie.