Juan Felipe Herrera, Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Juan Felipe Herrera, Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

10 Facts About Poets Laureate for National Poetry Month

Juan Felipe Herrera, Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Juan Felipe Herrera, Oregon State University via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

This April marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was begun in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to spread appreciation for one of the world’s oldest literary art forms. The month will see libraries, schools, publishers, and poets holding events to celebrate verse, and it also marks the appointment of a Poet Laureate. For those wondering what a Poet Laureate is, exactly, and what they do, here are a few facts about the honor.

1. THE OFFICIAL TITLE IN THE UNITED STATES IS POET LAUREATE CONSULTANT IN POETRY TO THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

The Great Hall at the Library of Congress, Geoff Livingston via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Poet Laureate position as we know it today was established in 1985 through an act of Congress. Before that, there was an equivalent position called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, established in 1937. Only poets appointed since the 1985 title went into effect are known as laureates. Poets appointed before that are known as “consultants in poetry,” or just “consultants.” While the positions are considered equivalent in terms of status, the duties associated with them are different. Consultants functioned as something like a collections specialist to the Library of Congress, while laureates focus more on public engagement and education.

2. SEVERAL OTHER COUNTRIES, AND EVEN U.S. STATES AND CITIES, HAVE THEIR OWN.

Great Britain has long expressed their appreciation of poetry by designating a laureate (they've had one almost continuously since 1668), but they are far from the only nation to do so. Over a dozen national governments take part in the tradition, either as a rotating post or a means of occasionally honoring one of their great poets. In addition, most U.S. states have their own laureates, and the role has continued to expand, with several cities (and even boroughs like Brooklyn) also appointing laureates.

3. THEY ARE APPOINTED IN THE UNITED STATES BY THE LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS.

Library of Congress card catalog, Rich Renomeron via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Britain’s Poet Laureate is appointed by the monarch with advice from the Prime Minister, and local poet laureates are appointed by various organizations, but the official Poet Laureate of the United States is chosen each year by the Librarian of Congress. The Librarian consults with current and former laureates, distinguished critics of poetry, and staff in the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center in order to make a choice. And, of course, the Librarian has access to the Library’s massive collection of poetry to inform them when making the selection.

4. THEIR OFFICIAL DUTIES ARE MINIMAL, AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS VARY GREATLY.

In general, Poets Laureate serve to raise national awareness and appreciation of poetry. When it comes to specific duties, they are expected to give a reading or lecture to begin their term and another one to conclude it, but beyond that they are largely free to shape the position according to their own interests. Some throw themselves into public outreach, initiating large-scale public projects and initiatives, while others focus more quietly on their work. Joseph Brodsky, for instance, piloted a program to bring poetry to public spaces like supermarkets and airports, while Rita Dove highlighted the African-American experience and was a champion of children’s poetry.

5. THEY ARE PAID, BUT NOT MUCH.

Archer M. Huntington via Huntingdon.org // Public Domain

The United States Poet Laureate receives a $35,000 stipend, an amount once intended to free the Laureate from worrying about making a living and allow them to focus solely on poetry. This salary is not paid by taxpayers, but by an endowment set up by philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington in 1936. The amount has stayed the same since 1985, and while it hasn't kept up with inflation, it now forms a nice bonus to the appointee’s other work. In olden times in England, the Laureate’s salary used to include an allotment of wine, a perk that, if added to the US Laureate’s pay, would probably help sweeten the $35,000 stipend. (The UK revived the tradition in 1972, and their poet laureate receives a barrel of sherry.)

6. THERE IS A CHILDREN’S LAUREATE.

Love of reading begins early on for many people, and a few institutions are doing their part to foster that by appointing writers to honorary positions related to children’s literature. In 2006, the Poetry Foundation appointed its first Children's Poet Laureate (now called the Young People’s Poet Laureate), aimed at raising awareness of children’s poetry and encouraging more poets to write for kids. The Library of Congress also has a National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, modeled on Britain’s Children’s Laureate and given biannually to an author or illustrator who has made a significant contribution to young people's literature. The literary scope of the position is broader than poetry alone, though, and it is currently held by comic book artist Gene Luen Yang.

7. THEY ARE CARRYING ON AN ANCIENT TRADITION.

A golden laurel wreath from the Hellenistic era,Jebulon via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Designating a poet laureate is a practice that began hundreds of years ago. The position of poet laureate was a prestigious one in the Greco-Roman world, but it disappeared at the end of the classical age. In 1315 Italian poet, historian, statesman, and playwright Albertino Mussato was handed a scroll and crowned with a wreath of myrtle, ivy, and laurel (hence the term “laureate”), becoming the first Poet Laureate of the post-classical age for his tragedy Ecerinis. In 1341, Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate by Rome, starting the tradition that continues to this day. Today’s honorees have done away with the crown, but they maintain the name it inspired.

8. RITA DOVE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN AND THE FIRST WOMAN APPOINTED TO THE POSITION OF POET LAUREATE. 

She was also the youngest at the time of her appointment—Dove was 40 when she was made seventh Poet Laureate in 1993. (Other women and African-Americans served as Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress before her.)

9. MEXICAN-AMERICAN LAUREATE JUAN FELIPE HERRERA HAS BEEN APPOINTED TO A SECOND TERM.

Slowking via Wikimedia // CC BY-NC 3.0

Herrera, the country’s first-ever Latino Laureate, was appointed to a second term on April 13. Herrera is a son of migrant workers, and his poems explore themes of Mexican-American identity and experience. 

10. THE PUBLIC CONTRIBUTED TO ONE OF HERRERA’S POETRY PROJECTS. 

Herrera instituted a two-part online project during his first term as Laureate, La Casa de Colores. The first part of this undertaking, known as La Familia, invited participants to contribute a verse to an epic collaborative poem about the American experience. The project, which spanned the length of Herrera’s term, unfolded monthly, with a new theme each month about an aspect of American life, values, or culture. The public reportedly submitted 500 to 800 contributions each month before the project ended early this month. A second phase, El Jardín—in which Herrera shares treasures from the Library of Congress collections—is still online, and Herrera is considering projects for his second term, which begins in September.

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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images
15 Things You Might Not Know About Jules Verne
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Jules Verne, widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote some of literature's most famous adventure novels, including seminal works like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days. In addition to helping pioneer a new genre of writing, the French author also sailed the world, had a career as a stockbroker, fell in love with his cousin, and was shot by his nephew. Here are 15 facts you probably didn't know about him.

1. HE GREW UP SURROUNDED BY SHIPS.

On February 8, 1828, Pierre and Sophie Verne welcomed their first child, Jules Gabriel, at Sophie's mother's home in Nantes, a city in western France. Verne's birthplace had a profound impact on his writing. In the 19th century, Nantes was a busy port city that served as a major hub for French shipbuilders and traders, and Verne's family lived on Ile Feydeau, a small, man-made island in a tributary of the Loire River. Verne spent his childhood watching ships sail down the Loire and imagining what it would be like to climb aboard them [PDF]. He would later work these early memories of maritime life into his writing.

2. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS COUSIN.

Verne began writing poetry at just 12 years old. As a teenager, he used poetry as an outlet for his burgeoning romantic feelings. Verne fell in love with his cousin, Caroline Tronson, who was a year and a half older than him. He wrote and dedicated poems to Tronson, gave her presents, and attended dances with her. Unfortunately, Tronson didn't reciprocate her younger cousin's feelings. In 1847, when Verne was 19 and Tronson was 20, she married a man two decades her senior. Verne was heartbroken.

3. HIS FATHER PRESSURED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

While Verne had been passionate about writing since his early teens, his father strongly encouraged young Jules to follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession. Soon after Tronson's marriage, Verne's father capitalized on his son's depression, convincing him to move to Paris to study law.

Verne graduated with a law degree in 1851. But he kept writing fiction during this period, and continued to clash with his father over his career path. In 1852, Verne's father arranged for him to practice law in Nantes, but Verne decided to pursue life as a writer instead.

4. HE LIVED IN PARIS DURING A TUMULTUOUS TIME.

Verne's time in Paris coincided with a period of intense political instability. The French Revolution of 1848 broke out soon after Verne moved to the city to study law. Though he didn't participate, he was strikingly close to the conflict and its turbulent aftermath, including the coup d'état that ended France's Second Republic. "On Thursday the fighting was intense; at the end of my street, houses were knocked down by cannon fire," he wrote to his mother during the fighting that followed the coup in December 1851. Verne managed to stay out of the political upheaval during those years, but his writing later explored themes of governmental strife. In his 1864 novella The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution, Verne wrote about the struggles of ordinary and noble French people during the French Revolutionary Wars, while his novel The Flight to France recounted the wartime adventures of an army captain in 1792.

5. HE BECAME A STOCKBROKER TO PAY THE BILLS.

In May 1856, Verne was the best man at his best friend's wedding in Amiens, a city in northern France. During the wedding festivities, Verne lodged with the bride's family and met Honorine de Viane Morel, the bride's sister. He developed a crush on Morel, a 26-year-old widow with two kids, and in January 1857, with the permission of her family, the two married.

There was one big problem. Verne had been writing plays for Paris theaters, but being a playwright didn't pay the bills. Verne needed a respectable income to support Morel and her daughters. Morel's brother offered Verne a job at a brokerage, and he accepted, quitting his theater job to become a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse. Writing was never too far from Verne's mind, though. He woke up early each day to write and research for several hours before heading to his day job.

6. HIS ADVENTURE NOVELS WERE PART OF A SERIES …

A caricature of Jules Verne on the sea floor with fantastic sea creatures on the cover of a magazine.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Modern readers probably think of Verne's most famous books as distinct entities, but his adventure novels were actually part of a series. In the early 1860s, Verne met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an established publisher and magazine editor who helped Verne publish his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon. This novel served as the beginning of Voyages Extraordinaires, a series of dozens of books written by Verne and published by Hetzel. Most of these novels—including famous titles like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—appeared in installments in Hetzel's magazine before being published in book form.

7. … THAT PROVIDED HIM WITH A STEADY STREAM OF INCOME.

Starting in 1863, Verne agreed to write two volumes per year for Hetzel, a contract that provided him with a steady source of income for decades. Between 1863 and 1905, Verne published 54 novels about travel, adventure, history, science, and technology for the Voyages Extraordinaires series. He worked closely with Hetzel on characters, structure, and plot until the publisher's death in 1886. Verne's writing wasn't limited to this series, however; in total, he wrote 65 novels over the course of his life, though some would not be published until long after his death.

8. HE DREW INSPIRATION FROM HIS OWN SAILING ADVENTURES.

During the 1860s, Verne's career was taking off, and he was making good money. So in 1867, he bought a small yacht, which he named the Saint Michel, after his son, Michel. When he wasn't living in Amiens, he spent time sailing around Europe to the Channel Islands, along the English Coast, and across the Bay of Biscay. Besides enjoying the peace and quiet at sea, he also worked during these sailing trips, writing most of the manuscripts for Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea on his yacht. As he earned more money, he replaced the Saint Michel with a larger boat that he called the Saint Michel II. A few years later, he bought a third vessel, the Saint Michel III, a steam yacht that he hired a crew of 10 to man on long voyages to Scotland and through the Mediterranean.

9. HE'S ONE OF THE MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS IN THE WORLD …

Verne wrote in French, but his works have always had an international appeal. Since the 1850s, his writing has been translated into approximately 150 languages—making him the second most translated author ever. He has appeared in translation even more often than William Shakespeare. He is second only to Agatha Christie, who holds the world record.

10. … BUT NOT ALL OF THOSE TRANSLATIONS ARE ACCURATE.

Although Verne wrote primarily for adults, many English-language publishers considered his science fiction writing to be juvenile and marketed his books to children. Translators dumbed down his work, simplifying stories, cutting heavily researched passages, summarizing dialogue, and in some cases, nixing anything that might be construed as a critique of the British Empire. Many translations even contain outright errors, such as measurements converted incorrectly.

Some literary historians now bemoan the shoddy translations of many of Verne's works, arguing that almost all of these early English translations feature significant changes to both plot and tone. Even today, these poor translations make up much of Verne's available work in English. But anglophone readers hoping to read more authentic versions of his stories are in luck. Thanks to scholarly interest, there has been a recent surge in new Verne translations that aim to be more faithful to the original texts.

11. HE HAD MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Starting in his twenties, Verne began experiencing sudden bouts of extreme stomach pain. He wrote about his agonizing stomach cramps in letters to family members, but he failed to get a proper diagnosis from doctors. To try to ease his pain, he experimented with different diets, including one in which he ate only eggs and dairy. Historians believe that Verne may have had colitis or a related digestion disorder.

Even more unsettling than the stomach pain, Verne suffered from five episodes of facial paralysis over the course of his life. During these painful episodes, one side of his face suddenly became immobile. After the first attack, doctors treated his facial nerve with electric stimulation, but he had another attack five years later, and several more after that. Recently, researchers have concluded that he had Bell's palsy, a temporary form of one-sided facial paralysis caused by damage to the facial nerve. Doctors have hypothesized that it was the result of ear infections or inflammation, but no one knows for sure why he experienced this.

Verne developed type-2 diabetes in his fifties, and his health declined significantly in the last decade of his life. He suffered from high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, tinnitus, and other maladies, and eventually went partially blind.

12. HIS MENTALLY ILL NEPHEW SHOT HIM IN THE LEG …

In March 1886, a traumatic incident left the 58-year-old Verne disabled for the rest of his life. Verne's nephew Gaston, who was then in his twenties and suffering from mental illness, suddenly became violent, to Verne's detriment. The writer was arriving home one day when, out of the blue, Gaston shot him twice with a pistol. Thankfully, Verne survived, but the second bullet that Gaston fired struck the author's left leg.

13. … LEAVING HIM WITH A PERMANENT LIMP.

After the incident, Gaston was sent to a mental asylum. He wasn't diagnosed with a specific disorder, but most historians believe he suffered from paranoia or schizophrenia.

Verne never fully recovered from the attack. The bullet damaged his left leg badly, and his diabetes complicated the healing process. A secondary infection left him with a noticeable limp that persisted until his death in 1905.

14. HIS WORK CONTRIBUTED TO THE RISE OF STEAMPUNK.

Verne's body of work heavily influenced steampunk, the science fiction subgenre that takes inspiration from 19th century industrial technology. Some of Verne's characters, as well as the fictional machines he wrote about, have appeared in prominent steampunk works. For example, the TV show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne explored the idea that Verne actually experienced the fantastic things he wrote about, and Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea appeared as a character in the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

15. MANY OF HIS PREDICTIONS WERE SURPRISINGLY SPOT-ON.

Some of the technology Verne imagined in his fiction later became reality. One of the machines that Verne dreamed up, Nautilus—the electric submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—came to life years after he first wrote about it. The first installment of the serialized Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1869, and the first battery-powered submarines were launched in the 1880s. (Similar submarine designs are still in use today.)

In addition, Verne's Paris In The Twentieth Century contains several surprisingly accurate technological predictions. Written in 1863, the dystopian novel imagines a tech-obsessed Parisian society in 1960. Verne wrote about skyscrapers, elevators, cars with internal combustion engines, trains, electric city lights, and suburbs. He was massively ahead of his time. He even wrote about a group of mechanical calculators (as in, computers) that could communicate with one another over a network (like the Internet). Pretty impressive for a guy born in 1828.

But Verne's influence goes beyond science fiction, steampunk, or real-world technology. His writing has inspired countless authors in genres ranging from poetry to travel to adventure. As Ray Bradbury wrote, "We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne."

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