How Can Libraries Capitalize on this Renewed Interest in Poetry and Teach about the Role of a Poet Laureate
Poetry has always been elevated language and exulted expression used throughout history for celebratory, solemn, and sacred events. But for too many students poetry has become a textbook anthology studied only in the month of April losing much of its luster for our students and youth. Often it has been placed on a pedestal too high for our students to find it relevant to their lives.
Amanda Gorman in her bolt of yellow has sent shock waves around our nation and beyond for her poise and powerful command of language demonstrated at our nation’s Inauguration. Her arrangement of words, turn of a phrase and internal rhyme was cleverly crafted, and yet, incredibly clear to all types of reader-viewers; a difficult balance to achieve in poetry. Immediately following her performance the media landscape went wild with learning more about her. In our realm School Library Journal posted the following article “Youngest Inaugural Poet in History Impresses. Lesson Plans Available for Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’”. They also went on to report her upcoming publications are already in the #1 and #2 bestseller positions on Amazon. My own introduction to Amanda Gorman was this past spring during the early days of shelter-in-place because of the pandemic. I saw her performance of “The Miracle of Morning” filmed in the LA Public Library. It was a balm and a pinpoint of light during at a time the world needed it.
Not only is poetry reserved for our highest ceremonies of our government it is reaching the highest levels of our popular culture and sports entertainment venues too as Amanda Gorman was asked to recite a poem at Super Bowl LV. This is the first time a poet has been asked to perform in the Super Bowl. Poets everywhere are sounding their “barbaric yawps to the world.” I hope this pattern of poetry performance pervades more of our everyday lives with the opportunity for many diverse poet voices to be heard. I think our roles in libraries can celebrate and support poetry as we have always been linked with the poet laureate position.
While many of our library programs do promote and support poetry and poets in April I would like to suggest we capitalize on this renewed interest in poetry now; especially with poetic models like Amanda Gorman. Earlier this year our library staff had already decided to reach out for a visiting poet this year as a writer visit. While Amanda Gorman was actually at the top of the list, but not feasible for us we learn more about the National Youth Poet Laureate program from which she arose. This is a great resource to find more young, energetic, and inspiring poets our students would admire. Each year a youth poet laureate is chosen through a national competition from four regions of the country. While there is one final youth poet chosen there is an anthology compiled of the poets that entered. This is a great place to find fresh young voices that can be examples for our teenage students. Our library assistant contacted the organization to learn about how to invite or host one of these poets in our school. She learned that they will try to connect you with one of the poets that is available for a virtual reading and workshop. The National Youth Poet Laureate program is an initiative originating from Urban Word, a youth literary arts program based in New York. Currently, they have free online workshops for students aged 13-19 and host virtual open mic poetry readings. Much of this reminded me that we can connect these resources with our language arts teachers and our students. We can also inform them of the role poet laureates play throughout our society.
Additionally, research if your state and city has a poet laureate. In the state of Florida, Peter Meinke is our State Poet Laureate. He lives in my city of residence, so I am very familiar with his poems. Students can relate to his imagery because it comes from our natural surroundings. They also see the stature poets play to local municipalities and ceremonies in the role of a poet laureate. I am also lucky that my city, St. Petersburg, Florida has a City Poet Laureate, Helen Pruitt Wallace. Touching base with local poet laureates is another way to connect our students to poetry because they have a model that shows them how their world might be reflected back to them. These poets can show them that poetry is not only personal, but can be communal in how our words shape our shared experiences. Additionally, you may be able to host more than one poet in a year if they are available locally.
Finally, do not forget that at our highest echelon of the library world, The Library of Congress,our national librarian, currently Carla Hayden oversees our National Poet Laureate program. The role was originally called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” from 1937 to 1986 and the poet chosen treated the role more like a reference librarian role advising the Librarian of Congress about poetry collection development. If you look through the history of this role you will see many notable poets served this role including Robert Frost. Then in 1986 by an act of Congress the name was changed to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” Today our poet laureates act more like ambassadors of poetry developing special projects, composing and performing poetry at special events and reaching out to the community to share the power of poetry.
It is a great time to revisit The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature: Poet Laureate website for rich resources. Our current Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo, she is the first Native American poet to serve. On the left hand side of the page there are links to other great poetry resources. The Poet Laureate Projects page houses the more recents projects these poets are sharing with the nation. Currently Harjo’s project is a media rich mapping of Native American poets called “ Living Nations, Living Words”. I see a great intersection between social studies and poetry with this current exhibit. There are seven other projects that are great sources to share with your English teachers. Another reminder is that the Library of Congress also has a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature which is currently writer, Jason Reynolds. Make sure to follow the blog and podcast “From the Catbird Seat: The official Poetry and Literature” of the Library of Congress to stay up-to-date with all their events and resources. In fact, to come full circle I found a great lesson plan for teaching Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural poem “ The Hill We Climb” by Peter Armenti. Not only does it have a video link and transcript of the poem, but it shares the other classical poets she derived her inspiration from. So this weekend I will be cheering her on along with my home team. Go books! Go Poets!
What a great post, Courtney! Apropos of your topic, I just finished Gloryland by Shelton Johnson. It is the fictional account of Elijah Johnson, from his roots in Spartanburg, South Carolina in the late 1800s to his career in the U.S. Cavalry as a Buffalo Soldier. The prose is beautifully crafted, and the poetry is so moving. I think it is a great book to highlight for Black History Month. Shelton Johnson has been a ranger in Yosemite since 1987, and he was featured in Ken Burns’ National Parks series on PBS. .
Thank you for the book title Gloryland. I will check it out.
She definitely had my students and teachers doing. She is a fabulous ambassador for poetry.
Thanks for your post, Courtney, and for your focus on poetry!
I share your enthusiasm for Amanda Gorman and hope she’ll keep reaching
across generations, gender and race to share the power of the word!
It’s been an honor to serve as your Poet Laureate here in St. Petersburg–
thanks for the shout out!