Amy Cannon is an associate professor of writing in the Thematic Option honors program at the University of South Carolina’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a Los Angeles-based writer and poet. This was first published by The Conversation.
“Ada Limón is a poet who connects.”
This was how Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden introduced the 24th poet laureate of the United States, whose tenure began Sep. 29.
From my perspective as a poet and writing teacher, “a poet who connects” is a perfect encapsulation of who the poet laureate should be — and why I see Limón as so well suited for the role.
This appointment has consistently been filled by some of the most celebrated and lasting poets of their generations — Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others. According to Limón, it was reading a Bishop poem, “One Art,” at age 15 that jump-started her own passion for poetry.
What is a poet laureate?
The office of the U.S. poet laureate is a relatively recent one. Philanthropist Archer M. Huntington endowed the position in 1937 as the “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.” The official title of “consultant in poetry” remains, but “poet laureate,” the name most Americans associate with the role, was added by an act of Congress in 1985.
Over time, the position has changed from one primarily advising the Library of Congress about their poetry collections to a more public-facing role. The most influential U.S. poets laureate have usually had a special interest or project: Maxine Kumin championed the work of women. Billy Collins’ “Poetry 180” project brought a poem a day to classrooms throughout the school year. And Robert Pinsky helped build an archive of Americans reading their favorite poems.
The terms of the laureateship are short, just one year, though some often stay for two terms. The most recent U.S. poet laureate — and the first Native American to fill the role — Joy Harjo, served for three, from 2019 until passing the baton to Limón this year.
A doorway to poetry
Limón is the first woman of Mexican ancestry to be named poet laureate of the U.S. Few women have filled the role, and women of color fewer still.
Limón has grappled with the expectations that predominately White literary spaces have placed on her in poems like “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual.” She has also joked about her experience as a poet of color online. Rather than resign herself to being pigeonholed, however, Limón views identity — and poetry — as an avenue to greater possibilities.
“I’m very interested in what it is to have identity be a doorway, a place where we can open up to different possibilities,” Limón told me in a conversation in August about her new appointment. “I didn’t sign up for anything limited when I chose poetry. I signed up for something that is about trying, on some level, to harness the unsayable.”
While this will be Limón’s first walk through the door as the poet laureate, she has already followed in the footsteps of Tracy K. Smith, who was poet laureate from 2017-19. During her tenure, Smith kicked off a weekday poetry podcast and radio show called “The Slowdown.” It was revived in September 2021 with Limón as host. She describes the experience of hosting the show as “a real gift and opportunity to spread poems.” In each episode, Limón shares a brief reflection drawn from her life, then reads a new poem she has selected for the day, chosen from a variety of poets.
With leisure time shrinking and the pandemic further blurring the boundaries between work and home, a podcast that rarely hits the five-minute mark may be as much time as many Americans can spare for literature. These episodes help poetry feel approachable, something that can slip into the fissures of a busy day.
The podcast can also serve as a guided tour of contemporary poetry, helmed by the attuned and attentive Limón. “I think being able to do a daily podcast has been really lovely because there’s so much opportunity to share really different styles of poetry,” Limón said. Offering listeners a wide range of poems, she explains, can help connect with different audiences.
A 21st-century laureate
Part of poetry’s appeal is its brevity. Limón’s poems tend to be short enough to be suited to the screenshot, the share. It’s a 21st-century way that poetry circulates, a way people can feel connected to the words and to each other.
Social media is frequently the place where people encounter poems. And poetry is something people can turn to when their own words fail. In 2016, Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” went viral after the Pulse nightclub shooting. Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” published in 2019, went viral earlier in 2022, as the world turned its eyes to the war-ravaged nation.
Social media posts and digestible podcast episodes invite even those whose attention feels fragmented to pause. When the world seems overwhelming, a poem can refresh like a sip of cold water, offering a meaningful moment in a hectic world.
Limón appreciates the role social media has played for poetry.
“(F)or the most part, the way we encounter poetry is one singular poem at a time,” she told me. “And so being able to post something on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter or any other social media platform, there is this amazing encounter that you can have where you’re flipping through, and it’s like — someone’s child, this lovely flower, there’s a shoe ad — and then, you come to this poem, and you’re suddenly bowled over by an Audre Lorde poem from 1978.” She acknowledges the ways social media can feel toxic, but Limón believes that beauty and connection also have a place. “I think that’s a power we really need to harness,” she said.
For me, it comes as no surprise that Limón’s own poems often circulate online. Her brilliant work and public persona offer an openhearted invitation into what language can do to connect people — to the natural world, to one another and to themselves.
At home in a poetic landscape
Across Limón’s six books of poems, an arresting voice emerges. Even her titles make the reader sit up and pay attention. Her poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” begins “I like the lady horses best” — a funny and engaging first line that draws the reader in with surprising diction and a conversational tone. Her work is exultant and deeply felt, in touch with the emotions and experiences that make us human.
Limón isn’t widely thought of as a nature poet, but she frequently writes nature poems of the built environment, populated by backyard trees, weeds in the garden and neighborhood animals. “We live within nature … even in urban settings, in the small pocket parks that are in between freeways,” Limón said. “To live in that community and to live in that interconnectedness, I hope, will help us see our lives as reciprocal with nature. … (T)hat, to me, is as important as any poem that you could write.”
Limón is a poet situated in a particularly American geography, first of California and now of Kentucky, grounding her work in the lush details of a lived-in landscape. Her poems, “The Hurting Kind” and “A New National Anthem,” draw on her perspective as an American proud of her blended background. These particularities, rather than making her work less welcoming, offer a texture of experience that many living in this mingled nation can relate to and see themselves in.
Speaking of taking on the mantle of U.S. poet laureate, Limón told me, “I’m really interested in what it looks like to have America in the room. And I think the face of America is often someone who is many things.”