Reading the US Poet Laureates

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—commonly referred to as the United States Poet Laureate—serves as the official poet of the United States.

Established in 1985 it is one of the highest honors an American poet can receive. It is a  position that has been held by some of the country’s most celebrated poets, including Louise Glück, Juan Felipe Herrera, Robert Hass and Tracy K. Smith.

Appointed by the Librarian of Congress, the poet laureate’s office is administered by the Center for the Book. During their term, the poet laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Ada Limón as the 24th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on July 12, 2022.

In the words of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, “Ada Limón is a poet who connects. Her accessible, engaging poems ground us in where we are and who we share our world with. They speak of intimate truths, of the beauty and heartbreak that is living, in ways that help us move forward.”

To quote Ada Limon from this New York Times article about the importance of the form “Right now, so often we are going numb to grief and numb to tragedy and numb to crisis…Poetry is a way back in, to recognizing that we are feeling human beings. And feeling grief and feeling trauma can actually allow us to feel joy again.”

Check out these works of poetry and memoirs by the current and some past poet laureates in the Livingston Library’s collection, and elevate your summer reading experience. Additional works by these poet laureates are available to borrow from other BCCLS libraries.

Current Poet Laureate: Ada Limon

The Carrying: Poems

Limón here weaves nature, family, and grief into a stunning collection. Several poems recount the loss of the speaker’s first husband from a drug overdose, but although pains are often described-whether caused by grief, infertility, or a crooked spine-Limón’s poems sing with the joy of life: “I wish to be untethered and tethered all at once, my skin/ singes the sheets and there’s a tremor in the marrow.” The poet mourns not only for people lost but also for irreplaceable things such as languages: “In the time it takes to say I love you, or move in with someone,/ …all the intricate words/ of a language become extinct.”

The Hurting Kind 

The tender, arresting sixth collection from Limón is an ode to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that characterizes the natural world. The work is divided into four sections (after the four seasons), and is frequently set in the poet’s garden.

Joy Harjo 2019-2022

An American Sunrise: Poems

The first Native American U.S. poet laureate, Harjo finds blessings in the abundance of her homeland and confronts the site where her people, and other indigenous families, essentially disappeared. From her memory of her mother’s death, to her beginnings in the native rights movement, to the fresh road with her beloved, Harjo’s personal life intertwines with tribal histories to create a space for renewed beginnings. Her poems sing of beauty and survival, illuminating a spirituality that connects her to her ancestors and thrums with the quiet anger of living in the ruins of injustice.

Poet Warrior: A Memoir 

Harjo offers a vivid, lyrical, and inspiring call for love and justice in this contemplation of her trailblazing life.  A musical, kaleidoscopic meditation, Poet Warrior reveals how Harjo came to write poetry of compassion and healing, poetry with the power to unearth the truth and demand justice. Weaving together the voices that shaped her, Harjo listens to stories of ancestors and family, the poetry and music that she first encountered as a child, the teachings of a changing earth, and the poets who paved her way. She explores her grief at the loss of her mother and sheds light on the rituals that nourish her as an artist, mother, wife, and community member.

Tracy K. Smith 2017-2019

Ordinary Light: A Memoir

A quietly potent memoir that explores coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter. In lucid, clear prose, Smith interrogates her childhood in suburban California, her first collision with independence at Harvard, and her Alabama-born parents’ recollections of their own youth in the Civil Rights era. These dizzying juxtapositions–of her family’s past, her own comfortable present, and the promise of her future–will in due course compel Tracy to act on her passions for love and “ecstatic possibility,” and her desire to become a writer.

Such Color: New And Selected Poems 

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Smith has earned praise from a litany of critics and poets alike for her deceptively breezy embrace of form and her deep engagements with subjects of race, faith, and language. This collection bundles several dozen poems from Smith’s outstanding oeuvre with 18 new poems collected under the header “Riot,” and bookended by two eponymous poems. 

Wade In The Water: Poems

The personal and political, historical and contemporary merge in a collection that not only addresses issues the United States is facing today-attitudes toward immigrants in “The United States Welcomes You” and water poisoned by corporate greed and indifference in “Watershed,” for example-but also gives voice to enslaved people in the Civil War era. What in lesser hands could be jarring here becomes a lyric tapestry, weaving poems created from the actual writings of the enslaved together with highly personal and immediate works.

Juan Felipe Herrara 2015-2017

Every Day We Get More Illegal

In this collection of poems, Herrera reports back on his travels through contemporary America. Poems written in the heat of witness, and later, in quiet moments of reflection, coalesce into an urgent, trenchant, and yet hope-filled portrait. The struggle and pain of those pushed to the edges, the shootings and assaults and injustices of our streets, the lethal border game that separates and divides, and then: a shift of register, a leap for peace and a view onto the possibility of unity.

Jabberwalking

Poet laureate Herrera conveys his enthusiasm for composing verse in this energetic how-to guide. In 15 brief chapters, he encourages brainstorming (i.e., Jabberwalking) and then quickly scribbling ideas on paper; reviewing for words and phrases that make sense; constructing poems with attention to shape, type size, and font; publishing; and, hopefully, achieving acclaim. Most of the text is conveyed in lively free verse English, with a generous sprinkling of Spanish that brims with references to contemporary life.

Natasha Trethewey 2012-2014

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir

In her memoir, a work of exquisitely distilled anguish and elegiac drama, Trethewey, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other awards, confronts the horror of her mother’s murder IN 1985.  Through finely honed, evermore harrowing memories, dreams, visions, and musings, Trethewey maps the inexorable path to her mother’s murder. Delicate prose distinguishes a narrative of tragedy and grief.

Monument : Poems: New And Selected

Layering joy and urgent defiance–against physical and cultural erasure, against white supremacy whether intangible or graven in stone–Trethewey’s work gives pedestal and witness to unsung icons. Monument, Trethewey’s first retrospective, draws together verse that delineates the stories of working class African American women, a mixed-race prostitute, one of the first black Civil War regiments, mestizo and mulatto figures in Casta paintings, and Gulf coast victims of Katrina. Through the collection, inlaid and inextricable, winds the poet’s own family history of trauma and loss, resilience and love.

Philip Levine 2011-2012

The Last Shift: Poems

The poems in this wonderful collection touch all of the events and places that meant the most to Philip Levine. There are lyrical poems about his family and childhood, the magic of nighttime and the power of dreaming; tough poems about the heavy shift work at Detroit’s auto plants, the Nazis, and bosses of all kinds; telling poems about his heroes–jazz players, artists, and working people of every description, even children. Other poems celebrate places and things he loved: the gifts of winter, dawn, a wall in Naples, an English hilltop, Andalusia.

My Lost Poets: A Life In Poetry

In prose both as superbly rendered as his poetry and as down-to-earth and easy as speaking, Levine reveals the things that made him the poet he became. Crisply rendered memories and observations are conveyed with abiding tenderness, self-deprecation, sharp humor, and steely lyricism, all shaped by his profound thankfulness for his guiding lights, his lost poets.

New Selected Poems 

This is a monumental work that somehow remains wonderfully accessible, largely because Levine has chosen pieces carefully, favoring shorter works and poems that address his staple themes of family (like “Uncle” and “My Son and I”) and childhood (“Coming Home”). Many of the poems are powerfully imagistic, with telling one-word titles like “Noon,” “Salami,” “Milkweed,” “Breath,” “Starlight,” “Snow,” and “Roofs.” Also included are familiar anthology pieces like “The Horse” and “They Feed the Lion.” 

W. S. Merwin 2010-2011

Travels: Poems

Merwin focuses on humanity’s destructive, arrogant relationship with nature, a subject that gives this work an apocalyptic tone. Less a visionary than a collector and preserver of visions, the poet travels to the now-endangered habitats of indigenous peoples whom he sees living in harmony with the earth, as well as into the past.

Louise Gluck 2003-2004

American Originality: Essays On Poetry

Written with the same probing, analytic control that has long distinguished her poetry, this is Glück’s second book of essays-.  From its opening pages, American Originality forces readers to consider contemporary poetry and its demigods in radical, unconsoling, and ultimately very productive ways. Determined to wrest ample, often contradictory meaning from our current literary discourse, Glück comprehends and destabilizes notions of “narcissism” and “genius” that are unique to the American literary climate. 

Faithful And Virtuous Night

In this collection, aging is a cerebral place where the poet remembers her childhood years and connects them to the present. The title poem is memoirlike, describing halcyon (and not so halcyon) days with an older brother and later with a younger sibling. Other pieces suggest that for the poet, adventures are in the past, including her experiences as a writer. The best poems here allude to the state of the soul-“How deep it goes, this soul,/ like a child in a department store,/ seeking its mother.”

Winter Recipes From The Collective 

In her first new collection since being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2020, Glück returns to themes of mortality and nature; she also addresses aging. In “The Denial of Death,” a concierge, a spectral gentleman, addresses the abandoned narrator, “Do not be sad, he said. You have begun your own journey, / not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself and your memories.” Glück’s work builds on an inquiring sense of wonder over our human experience and fortitude.  The Nobel committee praised the “austere beauty” of Glück’s poems; this marvelous collection adds warmth and wit.

-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian

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