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What Does a Poet Laureate Actually Do?

Philip Levine, an American poet, was appointed this week to the poorly paid, less-than-powerful, yet somehow-still-lofty position of United States’ poet laureate, triggering a cacophony of questions from average American news consumers like me. These questions include the following: who’s this octogenarian dude in a t-shirt talking about the fine arts during primetime? And, what does a poet laureate do anyway? Here’s the quick and dirty.

Philip Levine, 83, doesn’t exactly fit the brooding, elitist poet archetype. He drinks beer, he has a woodsman’s mustache, and he writes about suburbia. Which isn’t to say he’s not intellectual. His poems have been described this week as everything from gritty realist to soaringly magical, from playful to searing. Perhaps most importantly, his poems are said to capture a cross section of average, blue-collar American society that isn’t often found in the poetry aisle at your local bookstore.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Levine spent his youth working a series of “stupid jobs,” as he called them, in the Cadillac and Chevy factories—places not exactly known for their appreciation of rhyme and meter. It took this Michigander sixteen years of minimum wage gigs and scratching away at his desk at night in near obscurity to get his first book published, when he was 35. Since then, his furious-yet-droll voice has become a touchstone of American poetry.

Job Description

As for the poet laureate title, Levine’s not getting rich anytime soon. The official position—Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—comes with a $35,000 stipend, funded by a private organization, and little in the way of fame, glory or perks of any kind. (Although, in a bit of good news for poetry-lovers, Levine’s books have reportedly been selling out since the announcement of his appointment Wednesday, with a six-day backorder on Amazon.

Like all the poet laureates since the position was created in 1937, Levine will have very few official duties, except for reading a poem or two at the Library of Congress’ annual poetry symposium, and showing up at events when he’s requested. Past laureates have sometimes taken up a cause célèbre a la the first lady—everything from preserving biodiversity to bringing poetry back into newspapers—although others have simply stuck to the age-old job of poets since Sophocles’ time: finding a way to describe “Truth,” or at the very least, “truths,” in our world.

Here’s a younger Levine, in his 1991 book, The Simple Truth, taking a stab at the notion:

"Some things/you know all your life. They are so simple and true/they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,/they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,/the glass of water, the absence of light gathering/ in the shadows of picture frames, they must be/ naked and alone, they must stand for themselves."

Here’s to more octogenarians and fine arts during primetime.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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