In June, 2019, I wrote a column to call attention to misleading information the US Library of Congress published. The LOC, enthusiastically announcing the appointment of Joy Harjo as the nation’s new poet laureate, claimed in the subhead to the article that Harjo is the first Native American to serve as US poet laureate. Poet A.M. Juster attempted to get the record set straight, as did I.
Harjo was not the nation’s first native American to serve in that capacity, unless you play word games with reality or opt for politics over truth.
I explained all this in my column.
The first Native American to serve in the position Harjo now occupies was a poet named William Jay Smith. Smith’s Choctaw ancestry was not in dispute. Even the Poetry Foundation, an authority most who practice poetry recognize, acknowledged Smith’s ethnic links:
“Smith drew upon his Native American heritage—he was part Choctaw—for The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems (2000). In the work, Smith recounts a tragedy of American history: the forced relocation of five Native American tribes from their homelands in the southeast to Oklahoma territory, an ordeal now known as “The Trail of Tears.”
Today I read comments in response to an article about the LOC matter shared by poet Jennifer Reeser, whose talents I have often praised. The article, linked within a post on Reeser’s Facebook page, was published in a blog post at Stanford University.
I did search to see if influential media called out the LOC. I was unsuccessful, and I was also not surprised. Most media outlets these days are run on scant resources, one reason we basically now have meme media rather than a robust, inquisitive, and authentic press.
Unless the LOC chooses to address its error, few will realize the institution’s error. I do know the title of the office changed. The substance didn’t. Poet laureate or consultant—the terms are interchangeable when it comes to reality. The LOC has insulted William Jay Smith, a fine poet who happens to have passed on and cannot set his own record straight.
So brickbats to the LOC, and a hope that the day will come when government entities attempt to distribute truth rather than politically skewed stories.
For the record, I never liked Harjo’s poetry and believe she was a poor choice for the office. I’ve said repeatedly Jennifer Reeser would’ve been a far better choice, and I’m sticking to my beliefs on that although I am sure Reeser is embarrassed by my outspoken advocacy.
(Kay B. Day/Dec. 20, 2019)