What is the U.S. Poet Laureate’s Job, Anyway?

Tracy K. Smith - U.S. Poet Laureate

Sounds antiquated, but the American Poet Laureate is a crucial role in maintaining the artistic balance and integrity of the country.

Aspiring poets should know the name of Tracy K. Smith. Set aside the awards she’s won (many) and the poetry she’s published (innumerable) and her educational and professional pedigree (awe-inspiring). Smith is the current U.S. Poet Laureate, and with that title comes a very important job description.

According to the Library of Congress, the U.S. Poet Laureate serves a very specific role:

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2017- 
Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths source

“As the nation’s official poet, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.”

Library of Congress Website

What does a poet laureate do with their time? The Library of Congress leaves the job description intentionally vague. The intention is to give the poet laureate plenty of flexibility to adapt their work and projects to the needs and landscape of the current American poetry scene.

In the past, poet laureates have done everything from place an emphasis in their work on literary festivals and seminars to implementing programs with a national reach and embarking on lecture tours.

Smith has spent her tenure as the U.S. Poet Laureate in small towns around the country, connecting with rural communities. Smith said of the experience, “My project as Poet Laureate has brought me into contact with rural communities in the South and Southwest, and not only do we recognize and have many things to say to each other, but talking about poems together allows us to access and share our feelings and bear witness to the experiences that shape our lives. I’m excited to pursue this project further over the next year.”

Her work is highly celebrated (check out her official write up by the Library of Congress for a full list of her accomplishments and published works), and Smith remains a resonant voice for young poets today to tune into. Most recently, she has launched a daily podcast discussing a new poem by various writers every day: The Slowdown. As far as we’re concerned, it’s required listening.