The nation has new a poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, who has written more than 30 books of poetry, translation, and prose over the past 60 years. Despite what Merwin’s title says, don’t expect him to parade around the Library of Congress with a leaf wreath on his head.
The word “laureate” is derived from Latin, meaning “crowned with laurel.”Also known as the sweet bay, or just bay, the laurel tree was a symbol for the Greek and Roman god Apollo. (Apollo fell in love with a nymph named Daphne. Daphne spurned Apollo. Apollo had her turned into a laurel. It’s just how these things went back in those olden times.)
The Pythian Games, a precursor to the Olympic Games, were held in Apollo’s honor. At the games, winners of athletic events were crowned with a laurel wreath. Ancient poets were also crowned with laurel wreaths. Over time, laureate was part of a title given to anyone worthy of great honor or distinction. Nobel Prize winners are called laureates — so President Barack Obama has one to his name.
Although laureate headwear has gone the way of the horse and buggy, laurel is still an everyday part of our lives. Cooks often add bay (or laurel) leaves to soups, stews, and sauces. Though the leaves can impart an aromatic flavor to food, they should not be eaten. Bay leaves are about as edible as Merwin’s poems.
You might be sitting on laurel leaves right now: check out the front of the U.S. $1 bill. You’ve earned your dollar if you kind find the laurel leaves. Don’t rest on your laurels, however, with just this knowledge. There’s more to know …
If Merwin and previous winner Kay Ryan were having a conversation in a room, you would say, “There are the two most recent poets laureate.” The incorrect plural form would be “poet laureates.” The same form applies for the plural of “attorney general,” which is “attorneys general,” “not attorney generals.”
The word “laureate” has crept into college life, too. Students who complete their bachelor’s program receive a baccalaureate — no wreaths though, just a mountain of student debt.
We leave you with a very short poem by Merwin, called “Separation”:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.