Why Are So Many Poets Laureate Old, White and Male? The Library of Congress Responds

Written by Jessica Goldstein

Charles Wright has just been named Poet Laureate of the United States. He’s written over 20 poetry collections. He is 78-years-old. Like most Poets Laureate before him, this title is just about the only honor he hadn’t already received from the world of letters. Wright’s got a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a Bollingen Prize and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize to his name.

That the Laureateship is intended as a signal that a writer has reached the pinnacle of his or her profession is something of a conundrum, diversity-wise. The overwhelming majority of Poets Laureates past are also white and male.

The law that designates how the Poet Laureate is selected states that the individual be chosen “solely on the basis of merit,” and it’s hard to argue against the fact that the more critically acclaimed books you’ve published, and the more major awards you’ve won, the more you deserve this particular prize. But the problem with all of that, naturally, is they assume that these barriers to entry are somehow pure meritocracies as well; that there is no prejudice in the publishing world, that prizes are handed out just as frequently to women and writers of color as they are to men. And since they are not, there’s a systemic prejudice against minorities in the whole enterprise, one that trickles upward to the Poet Laureateship, which is chosen from a pool of the already-acclaimed. (This is the same deeply ingrained snobbery that keeps excellent young adult novels outside the club of great literature; as Kathleen Hale’s very funny, must-read piece on the issue put it, “You don’t gain credibility by being widely read, you gain credibility by being accepted by rich, white, men.”)

Robert Casper, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, cited the many types of diversity considered during the selection process. Casper oversees a survey of experts who submit nominations for each year’s Poet Laureate. (The Laureate is ultimately selected by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who consults experts and colleagues before making the final decision.) Wright, though white and male and a senior citizen, checks a geographic diversity box, Casper pointed out; he’s only the third southern-born Poet Laureate since the position was established.

I asked him if there was an age qualification for the Poet Laureate, figuring that the pool of older acclaimed poets, who came of age before the Civil Rights movement and women’s liberation, are far more likely to be white and male than not. Casper said no, there is no hard and fast rule, although “I don’t think it’d be great to have a pre-teen Poet Laureate. You’d get a lot of calls.” He added that Natasha Trethewey was in her forties during her tenure as Poet Laureate (this kind of only proved my point; that to find an acclaimed female poet, you have to look beyond the AARP crowd).

Is the Library of Congress concerned at all about the lack of diversity in the history of the Laureateship? How can they rely on these channels to produce only the “best” when those very channels have long excluded so many non-white, non-male voices? “I think anyone who is involved, as I have been for twenty years, in a field like this, worries about it,” Casper said. “I’ve seen firsthand, from behind the scenes, how these processes work. And I would say, most often, good poetry rises to the fore. I think some bad poetry rises to the fore as well.” Prejudices, he said, evolve with the times: maybe you used to need a degree from Harvard and a home address in New York City, now you need to get your MFA at Iowa. He also said that, in choosing this year’s Laureate, he surveyed fifty people; 76 names were nominated, and just over twenty of those poets were nominated by more than one person. “They came from all sorts of parts of the country, they were very diverse gender-wise and racially.”

Then he said, “There are still issues. It’s worth looking at the VIDA count. There are groups like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop… for instance, that are working to champion particular groups and have been very effective, not only in doing that but also in point out systematic ways in which more men are published than women. So I’m very happy that that sort of thing is happening, and I think anyone who cares about the field notices that kind of thing and works to challenge any of those sorts of biases that undermine the integrity of the art.”

This post originally appeared on Think Progress

Photo Credit: Yale University Library


Bob T.
Bob T3 years ago

Maya Angelou was one of the greatest poets of our time. How many awards has she won?

Ruby W.
Inez w3 years ago

In the UK, the role has been held by Carol Ann Duffy since May 2009 but she is the only one...
However, The Children's Laureate, started 19999 has had a host of women:
1999–2001 Quentin Blake
2001–2003 Anne Fine
2003–2005 Michael Morpurgo
2005–2007 Jacqueline Wilson
2007–2009 Michael Rosen
2009–2011 Anthony Browne
2011–2013 Julia Donaldson
2013–2015 Malorie Blackman

Paul B.
Paul B3 years ago

Birds of a feather.... When the group analyzes current poets, a dying art, they seek similar poetry to themselves.

I agree that Rap has a place in the poetry circles, but too often that genre has a bad stigma due to the message it too often delivers. Violence, sexism, racism, misogyny etc. too many negative messages contained in the content of MOST rap artists... but should that matter? Poetry is an expression of life, through creative artistic methods and encompasses a variety of lifestyles and beliefs.

IMO, being nominated and chosen as a Poet Laureate is about like being nominated for or receiving a nobel prize, or even a Pulitzer prize... it is subjective to those doing the choosing, and often NOT what the mainstream of the world would agree with. The Nobel proze took a HUGE hit with the award going to Obama, simply for the speeches he conveyed, without ANYTHING concrete, and has since shown his willingness to use drone strikes, etc to accomplish his goals... and Gore for his ANTI-climatic promotion of the global warming film, based upon the fabricated conclusions from the IPCC, whose DIRE warnings have NOT materialized to ANY extent predicted.

These awards are for those who give the awards and those who relish in their delivery. But for the average person, they mean very little.

M Quann
M Q3 years ago

Thanks Ben O

Mari 's
Mari 's3 years ago

I'm a poet and I'm female. I'm sure there are other females out there.

Alorha Breaw
Alorha Breaw3 years ago

Honestly, who the poet laureate is or has been doesn't matter all that much to me.
But what does matter & delights me to no end is every time I see or experience life enhancing creativity freely expressed.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers3 years ago

It's wrong to restrict this job to only old white males, however, poetry is a virtually dead art to the majority of the populous. The only American poetry that is mainstream, is Rap. With subject matter as wide, if not wider, than traditional poetry. Encompassing Facts, fiction, social commentary and love. If the next poet laureate is not drawn from this pool, that would be a real literary injustice. Rap is the modern soundtrack of America, whether you like it or not!

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

Thank you for this informative article.

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Maybe some men just have bigger laurerates than others...

Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago