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10 Facts About Poets Laureate for National Poetry Month

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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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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
iStock

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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