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Joseph Brodsky, U.S. Poet Laureate: A Resource Guide

About Joseph Brodsky at the Library of Congress

Joseph Brodsky served as the Library of Congress's 5th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry from 1991-1992. The links below provide more information about his activities at the Library, including webcasts, blog posts, and related news releases.

Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky speaking into a microphone as Librarian of Congress James Billington observes
New Poet Laureate meets the press: James Billington, Joseph Brodsky. 1991. Library of Congress Photoduplication Service.

On May 10, 1991, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington appointed Joseph Brodsky the fifth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Brodsky began his term in the fall of 1991 with a lecture on poetry and its audience.

In this lecture, Brodsky conceived the role of Poet Laureate "in the spirit of a public servant" that should aim to grow the readership of poetry. He explained,

The seat of power was often the seat of culture... Centuries passed: seats of power and seats of culture parted their ways, it seems, for good. Thus of course the price you pay for democracy, for the rule of the people, by the people, for the people, of whom still only 1% reads poetry… I take this job in the spirit of a public servant, not in any other, so it is the audience for poetry in this country which is my concern, and it is in this public servant spirit that I find the existing creation of 1% appalling and scandalous, not to say tragic… 

Brodsky credited this lack of readership to the poor production and supply of poetry books across the country. During his term as Laureate, Brodsky made his project to spread physical copies of poetry to public spacessupermarkets, hotels, airports, hospitalswhere people congregate and "can kill time as time kills them." Brodsky's project and pointed criticism at the lacking production of literature still rings true today:

We are all literate, therefore, everybody is a potential reader of poetry… This is, after all, a country of mass production, and I don’t see why what has been done for cars can’t be done for books of poetry, which take you quite a bit further.

Joseph Brodsky only served one term as Poet Laureate, finishing his laureateship in 1992 with a reading of his poetry. Following his time at the Library of Congress, Brodsky continued to carry on his work. Shortly after his term ended, Brodsky collaborated with Andrew Carroll to form The American Poetry & Literacy Project, whose mission is to increase American's access to poetry by distributing books in public places. One of the project's first efforts was to distribute free copies of Six American Poets, edited by Joel Conarroe and featuring works by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams to hotels, hospitals, and homeless shelters throughout the United States.


Library of Congress press releases about Joseph Brodsky's poet laureate appointment, activities, and events are listed below.

Library of Congress blog posts about Joseph Brodsky.

The Library of Congress features several recordings of Joseph Brodsky reading and discussing his poetry and the poetry of other poets. These are listed below.