Poets Laureate of the United States

Poets Laureate of the United States

Since 1937 the Librarian of Congress has appointed a Poet Laureate for the United States. Initially the post was designated as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. With the appointment of Robert Penn Warren in 1986 the title became Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The yearly appointment may be renewed at the discretion of the Librarian of Congress.

GRIL will highlight from time to time a Poet Laureate, beginning with Stanley Kunitz who served two terms, 1974-76 and 2000-01.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1905, Kunitz taught for many years at Columbia University. His many honors include Pulitzer and Bollinger prizes as well as two National Book Awards. In 1993 President Clinton presented the National Medal of Arts to him in a White House ceremony. Mr. Kunitz published in his ninetieth year Passing Through: The Later Poems from which these two pieces are reproduced.


I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am done with my changes.


Great events are about to happen.
I have seen migratory birds
in unprecedented numbers
descend on the coastal plain,
picking the margins clean.
My bones are a family in their tent
huddled over a small fire
waiting for the uncertain signal
to resume the long march.

Submitted by Clif Cleaveland, MD