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What Does a Poet Laureate Actually Do?

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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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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.


A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.


Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.


Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.


The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.


Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.


Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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Live Smarter
You Can Now Order Food Through Facebook
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After a bit of controversy over its way of aggregating news feeds and some questionable content censoring policies, it’s nice to have Facebook roll out a feature everyone can agree on: allowing you to order food without leaving the social media site.

According to a press release, Facebook says that the company decided to begin offering food delivery options after realizing that many of its users come to the social media hub to rate and discuss local eateries. Rather than hop from Facebook to the restaurant or a delivery service, you’ll be able to stay within the app and select from a menu of food choices. Just click “Order Food” from the Explore menu on a desktop interface or under the “More” option on Android or iOS devices. There, you’ll be presented with options that will accept takeout or delivery orders, as well as businesses participating with services like or EatStreet.

If you need to sign up and create an account with or Jimmy John’s, for example, you can do that without leaving Facebook. The feature is expected to be available nationally, effective immediately.

[h/t Forbes]


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