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Poet Laureate

Updated on May 2, 2015
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

I have never really paid much attention to the Poet Laureate position. Robert Frost is the only one I ever remember being called one. Needless to say, I decided to focus on pulling five poems from America’s poet laureates for a college assignment, but I took a unique approach. I pulled the poet laureates that were in the position at the turn of the century from 1997 to 2001.

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky was the poet laureate from 1997 to 2000. His poem, “Shirt”, discusses an ordinary piece of clothing that the average person takes for granted. How it is made is never thought about. No one realizes that it might be created in “a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians”. There is history within the poem as the poet reflects on the infamous Triangle Factory tragedy that took many lives because safety measures were not put into place or considered all to get the clothing made and the money raked in” “One hundred and forty-six died in the flames / On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes”. Pinsky takes a raw look at the horror that occurred in that event as he goes through various aspects of the shirt, the people involved in making it, and the types: “Prints, plaids, checks”, “weavers, carders, spinners”, “the label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.” This is a very emotional poem that had me looking at my own clothes and wondering what it took to get to me and what unknown horrors I did not know about.


Stanley Kunitz

The poet laureate from 2000 to 2001 was Stanley Kunitz. His poem, “End of Summer”, describes a scene where the poet is looking around and noticing the changes of nature at the end of summer. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until he acknowledges that this “part of my life was over” as the “iron door of the north / Clangs open” as the “birds, leaves, snows / Order their populations forth.” There is no stopping nature as it moves through its changes. It will happen and can be seen before it appears giving the earth notice to prepare. It is a simple poem that is deep once one reads it and then thinks of their own life beyond the seasons around them.


Rita Dove

Rita Dove was one of three specially chosen bi-centennial poet laureates. Her poem, “American Smooth”, goes through a dance scene giving emotional descriptions of the energy, focus, and passion needed to accomplish it: “requiring restraint, / rise and fall, precise / execution”. One can feel the dancer not allowing the pain of movements reflect through their body as they “achieved flight” before everyone who watches realizes that they are just two people and the spell is broken. This poem is harder to relate to as are many of her poems. She seems to write with no thought. Her words ramble though they do deliver a message that is potent.


Louise Gluck

Another of the bicentennial poet laureates was Louise Gluck. Like Rita Dove, I see her work as a McPoem as it seems to ramble. It is almost like “Midsummer” was really meant to be an essay of some sort, but instead she fashioned it into a poem: “On nights like this we used to swim in the quarry, / the boys making up games requiring them to tear off the girls’ clothes”. The stances are just long sentences broken up to resemble that of a poem. “Midsummer” is a deep poem as the poet goes over the summer days where young people struggle between being children and becoming adults with many finding themselves becoming more adult than they had planned: “Once or twice, at the end of summer, / we could see a baby was going to come out of all that kissing.” This was another one I struggled with as I read.

W. S. Merwin

The other bi-centennial poet laureate was W. S. Merwin. His poem, “Native Trees”, discusses how one does not notice many things growing up. The poet asks his parents what native trees were around when he was born, but they were not listening. They were blind to the details. They could not recall even their own trees when they were children: “What were they I asked what were they / but both my father and my mother / said they never knew.”


The McPoem

What I noticed among the bi-centennial poet laureates were more of the samples of the McPoem. They were ramblings without a sense of poetic direction. Their topics could be explored and deepened, but the delivery was jerky and disjointed. Could that be a reflection of the nation at the turn of the century? Are they the ideal poet laureates that represent the nation so well? I think the other two poets during that time were more true to the art while the three bi-centennial poets were more true to the confused nation.

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Works Cited:

Louise Gluck, “Midsummer”, Poetry Foundation. Web. 17 January 2013.

Rita Dove, “American Smooth”, Poetry Foundation. Web. 17 January 2013.

Robert Pinsky, “Shirt”, Poetry Foundation. Web. 17 January 2013.

Stanley Kunitz, “End of Summer”, Poetry Foundation. Web. 17 January 2013.

W. S. Merwin, “Native Trees”, Poetry Foundation. Web. 17 January 2013.


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