The mission of the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center, under the terms of the bequests that established and support its programs, is to foster and enhance the public's appreciation of literature. To this end, the Center administers the endowed Poetry chair and coordinates an annual literary season of public poetry, fiction and drama readings, performances, lectures and symposia, all sponsored since 1951 by the Library's Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund and the Huntington Fund.
The Poetry and Literature Center
The Center's Poetry Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building is used by the Poet Laureate at his or her discretion and by the Center to receive visiting writers, publishers teachers, and guests.
The Center is headed by Robert Casper, who was named to the position on March 23, 2011 by Dr. James H. Billington. Robert Casper is also the programs director for the Poetry Society of America. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "Casper brings a range of experience, expertise, new ideas and exuberance that promise to generate new dnamism in this important national program of poetry at the Library of Congress."
Learn more about Robert Casper
Most of the poetry and literature programs presented at the Library of Congress are supported by funding from the Archer M. Huntington endowment, the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund, or other gift funds. The Huntington Fund began operation in 1937, and the Whittall Fund in 1950 and was augmented over the years until her death in 1965. To expand its offerings and initiate programs in the 21st century, the center welcomes donations from those who wish to help revitalize the Library's literary programs. Interested potential donors may request more information by calling the Center at (202) 707-5394. Contributions are tax deductible.
Support the Poetry and Literature Center
Consultants in Poetry and Poets Laureate
In 1936 philanthropist Archer M. Huntington provided an endowment for the "maintenance of a chair of Poetry of the English language in the Library of Congress." The incumbent was to be designated "Consultant in Poetry." Beginning with the appointment for 1986-87, the title (under Public Law 99-194) became "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry."
The first Consultant in Poetry, Joseph Auslander, was appointed in 1937 without a definite term. After Archibald MacLeish became Librarian of Congress in 1939, he decided that the consultantship should be filled on a rotating basis. Throughout the 1940s, each consultant served for only one year. Beginning with Conrad Aiken in 1950, consultants have frequently served a second term if circumstances permitted. The history of this unique literary post up to 1986 is chronicled by author William McGuire in the book Poetry's Catbird Seat (Library of Congress, Washington, 1988), now out of print but obtainable in many libraries.
Duties and Projects of the Poet Laureate
The Library of Congress keeps to a modest minimum the specific official duties it requires of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to afford each incumbent maximum freedom to work on his or her own projects while at the Library. Each appointee brings a new emphasis to the position. Some consultants have organized and chaired literary festivals and conferences; others have filled their calendars with speaking engagements at schools and universities or by receiving the worldwide literary public in the Poetry Room. Since 1991, following the lead of Joseph Brodsky, the Poets Laureate have frequently designed programs with a national reach.
- Allen Tate served as editor of the Library's Quarterly Journal during his tenure and edited the compilation Sixty American Poets, 1896-1944;
- Maxine Kumin initiated a popular women's series of poetry workshops at the Poetry and Literature Center;
- Howard Nemerov conducted poetry seminars at the Library for high school English classes;
- Gwendolyn Brooks managed popular lunchtime poetry readings;
- Robert Pinsky initiated the Favorite Poem Project, dedicated to celebrating, documenting and promoting poetry's role in Americans' lives;
- Billy Collins started a continuing Web site, Poetry 180, a poem-a-day project designed with high school students in mind;
- Ted Kooser started American Life in Poetry, a free, weekly poetry column to newspapers across the United States.
Prizes and Fellowships
The Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry
The Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry is given for the most distinguished book of poetry published by an American during the preceding two years. The $10,000 prize is given in memory of the late Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt of Austin, Texas, by her family. Bobbitt was the sister of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Nominations for the biennial prize may be submitted by publishers only. A three-member jury, comprised of a poet suggested by the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a publisher suggested by the Academy of American Poets and a literary critic named by the Bobbitt family, selects the winning author.
Learn more about the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry
Witter Bynner Fellowships
Since 1998, the Witter Bynner Foundation has provided funds to the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, who, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, makes awards to two or more emerging poets each year to support the writing of poetry. Only two things are asked of the fellows: that they organize a poetry reading in their locality and that they participate in a reading at the Library of Congress. The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was incorporated in 1972 in New Mexico to provide grant support for programs in poetry through nonprofit organizations.
Learn more about the Witter Bynner Fellowships
The Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature
A continuing activity of the Poetry and Literature Center is the invitation of writers to record for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, the Library's audiotape collection. From time to time, as funds permit, discs and audiocassettes have been issued for sale from the archive. Researchers may gain access to the archive through the Recorded Sound Reference Center in the Library's James Madison Memorial Building. Some readings are also available on the Web.
Most incumbent Poets Laureate have furthered the development of the Library's Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, and the Library's Web site, featuring broadcasts of readings as well as recordings, including: "The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress," a series of radio interviews with poets who have been invited to read by host Grace Cavalieri. The show, which first aired on WPFW-FM radio in Washington, D.C., features poets reading their work and discussing the craft of writing and sources of inspiration. The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., sponsor "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress."
The Poetry and Literature Center
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20540-4861