Amy Paeth on the ‘poetry industrial complex’

In her new book, the lecturer in critical writing in the School of Arts & Sciences uses the history of the U.S. poet laureate as a window into how the arts, government, industry, and private donors interact and shape culture.

In the 1940s and ’50s, U.S. poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell traveled around the world as “cultural missionaries,” funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation but also the Farfield Foundation and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, both fronts for the CIA. When the Iowa Writers’ Workshop created its international program in 1967, it also received funding from the Farfield Foundation, as well as the U.S. State Department.

Book cover for The American Poet Laureate at left, Amy Paeth at right.
Image: Courtesy of Amy Paeth/OMNIA

In her new book, “The American Poet Laureate: A History of U.S. Poetry and the State,” lecturer in critical writing Amy Paeth uses the office of the U.S. poet laureate as a lens to illuminate the state’s influence on poetry—and vice versa—since World War II. The book received the Northeast Modern Language Association’s Annual Book Award and accolades from the Times Literary Supplement.

It is the first history of the national poetry office and the position now commonly called the U.S. Poet Laureate, held by Bishop and Wallace, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Pinsky, and Tracy K. Smith, among others. But Paeth’s picture is bigger, showing how poetry has played a uniquely important and largely unacknowledged role in the cultural front of the Cold War.

Paeth says the office has always been an example of how the state uses its resources. In the beginning, the job title was “Consultant in Poetry in the English Language at the Library of Congress.” “It was a weird little custodial endowment and people hung out there a little bit, maybe wrote some poems, but it was just a cushy situation,” says Paeth.

After World War II, the office became increasingly politicized. Controversies followed the awarding of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (then chosen by Library of Congress fellows) to Ezra Pound and, later, the appointment of William Carlos Williams as the Consultant. Both were rescinded because of the recipients’ politics.

Read more at OMNIA.