The position of the American poet laureate, a position appointed and administered by the Library of Congress, is an odd one in the cultural landscape. Does the appointment celebrate the poet, or is the poet, duly appointed, tasked to celebrate the nation?
This question has troubled some laureates, who have made a point of distancing themselves from any public purpose, and certainly from any nationalistic one. Some laureates have grasped the opportunity of having a public role with enthusiasm; Robert Pinsky devoted his two terms to advancing a project in public poetry.
Others have been more reticent, even to the point of invisibility. So it is always interesting to see how the laureate approaches his or her appointment as well as to glean some information about the state of public culture from the appointment.
Last year’s selection, Charles Wright, was rewarded for his long and luminous career. Today’s announcement that the California poet Juan Felipe Herrera is this year’s laureate is of note both for who Herrera is as well as for recognition of Latino citizens’ literary contribution to America.
For the Portrait Gallery, Herrera’s appointment has a nice symmetry, as we are about to open Taína Caragol’s exhibition, “One Life: Dolores Huerta,” on July 3. Huerta is a galvanizing activist who rose to prominence in the farm workers’ movement during the late 1960s. And Juan Felipe Herrera was a migrant worker whose youth—he was born in 1948 in Fowler, California—was spent in the migrant camps of California. He was able to get himself through high school and college, and by age forty, having become interesting in words and word play (he published several chapbooks of poetry along the way), also earned a degree from Iowa’s prestigious writer’s workshop.
He has gone on to establish himself as a poet of note, not just in the sense of a gathering reputation but in his lyrical use of language. Listen to how he merges English and Spanish in [Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way]. It concludes:
ripe mariposa fields and mares claros
of our face
to breath todos en el camino blessing
seeds to give to grow maiztlan
en las manos de nuestro amor
But let us not burden the new laureate with too much politics. Herrera, who should not be unfamiliar with the public role of his new job since he was poet laureate of California, confesses to being both honored and nervous with the recognition that comes with the laureateship. Let’s let him continue in the words of his own making as he continues to deal with our universal problem of making our way in the world:
Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,\
yes, it is that easy, a poem….
That easy. That hard. The necessary life expressed in line after line.
--David C. Ward, Senior Historian