On Wednesday, June 10, the Library of Congress announced that Juan Felipe Herrera, 66, will be the next U.S. poet laureate.
Elaborating on the selection, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, compared Herrera's work to Walt Whitman's, calling Herrera an "American original." Like Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Herrera's poems "engage in a serious sense of play--in language and in image--that I feel gives them enduring power," said Billington in a Library of Congress statement. "I see how they champion voices, traditions and histories, as well as a cultural perspective, which is a vital part of our larger American identity."
Not a poetry fan? Not to worry. There are plenty of surprisingly practical ideas and inspirations you can cull from Herrera's life and work:
1. You can push yourself in surprising new directions.
One of the hallmark lines in Whitman's "Song of Myself" could easily pertain to Herrera's life and career: "I resist anything better than my own diversity." That's Whitman's way of saying, "Don't you dare pigeonhole me, reader. If you label me one thing, I'll cast myself the opposite." Likewise, it's foolish to sum up Herrera's biography and poetry with a fistful of adjectives. His range has been wide and ever-spanning.
"He's always trying to get outside what he's already done, line by line, poem by poem, book by book," Stephen Burt, a professor at Harvard who has written about Herrera, told the New York Times. "He's really unpredictable in the best possible way."
2. You can overcome shyness and become a bold voice.
In middle school, Herrera told the New York Times, he overcame his shyness and joined a choir. "It was part of my secret project of becoming a speaker," he said. "I was so afraid." By high school, he was hooked on Boris Pasternak, the famous Russian poet.
3. You don't need a formal degree to pursue your life's work.
Herrera didn't earn his M.F.A. (at the Iowa Writers' Workshop) until 1990, when he was in his forties and had already authored four books of poetry.
4. Outside interests and experiences are crucial for your work.
Herrera did not major in English at UCLA. He studied anthropology. After graduation, he earned a masters in social anthropology at Stanford. Later, he was active in the Chicano civil rights movement and experimental theater. And throughout his career, he worked continuously as a teacher.
All of which has contributed to his poetry in countless ways. For example, last year he told the journal Zyzzyva that his students "are brighter than me, and they are more original than me and much quicker of mind--so I am very fortunate to be in their company. I learn a lot. The shape of their poems, for example, their innovative translation approaches, their leaps into international and multicultural poetics... and their ideas."
5. You should not expect to please everyone all of the time.
"Reading him in bulk reminds me not to overpraise him," observes critic Dwight Garner in the New York Times, writing about Herrera's poetry. "He can be sentimental and repetitious, and a good deal of his work is rhetorically slack. His poem "Water Water Water Wind Water" ("water water water wind water / across the land shape of a torn heart") is among the weakest I have read about Hurricane Katrina, and that is a crowded field."
Mind you, Garner is generally an admirer of Herrera's work. The idea here is that no one--not even America's new poet laureate--can please all readers, all the time.
6. Always be creating.
Herrera told the New York Times that he often gets writing done while he's ostensibly doing something else. "I write while I'm walking, on little scraps of paper," he said. "If I have a melody going, I can feel it for days."
In other words: You can make progress on ideas without necessarily blocking out designated time for them. Just be diligent about recording your thoughts, whether you're on a treadmill or in the shower.
7. Don't stop at what you think is your masterpiece.
Herrera has been so prolific that--as Colin Dwyer points out on NPR.org--there is actually no authoritative account of just how many books he's written. The Library of Congress puts the number at 28, while other accounts say 30.
The point is not the precise number. It's that he's written more than two dozen books, many of which are not works of poetry, per se. He's authored novels in verse and children's books, too. Like the speaker in Whitman's "Song of Myself," Herrera's oeuvre has resisted anything better than its own diversity. And now he has America's top poetry laurel to show for it.