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What is a Poet Laureate?

Ben Johnson was the first official poet laureate of England.
King James I selected the first official poet laureate of England.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 03 April 2014
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A poet laureate is a poet recognized by a government as the official poet of a country, state or city. The term laureate is related to the laurel wreath, which would crown the head of great writers or poets. It is a symbol of Apollo, the Greek god of wisdom. Thus the title of poet laureate implies that the poet is exceptionally skilled and wise.

The tradition of recognizing a poet laureate first began in England. A term prior to the reign of James I would have been “king’s poet.” This reflects earlier traditions of a poet or minstrel that might work only at the pleasure of the king and compose poems that would specifically honor the king. Having a minstrel, storyteller or poet, is much older than the monarchies of England. Any nobleman in most European countries would have had designated poets to help mark special occasions and provide entertainment.

The first “official” poet laureate of England was Ben Johnson, named so by James I in 1617. Other well-known poet laureates include John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Cecil Day-Lewis. England has never had a female poet laureate, though Wales recognizes Gwyneth Lewis as its National Poet.

In the US, the US Librarian of Congress appoints the poet laureate. This position began in 1937, though before, many states appointed someone to this position, and many still do. Some cities, like San Francisco, even appoint city poets.

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A poet laureate in the US may still serve for more than one year, but many fulfill only a year’s term, for which they are paid a stipend of 35,000 US dollars (USD). The stipend in these economic times does little to significantly improve the economic circumstances of the poet.

Past notable US poets who have held the position include Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, Robert Penn Warren, Mona Van Duyn, and Joseph Brodsky. Each poet laureate in the US advises the Librarian of Congress on how to bring more citizens to poetry. Most hold special readings and also participate in events that bring a number of poets together to read their works for others.

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Discuss this Article

anon154831
Post 4

I have heard that Carol Ann Duffy was the first Poet Laureate in England. Why do you say that England has never had a female poet laureate?

anon6870
Post 2

I was told that Maya Angelou was indeed mentioned as a Poet laureate. After her reading of On the Pulse of morning at the inauguration of Bill Clinton

Moderator's reply: that's a valid point! the U.S. Library of Congress actually appoints poet laureates to serve the country in encouraging others to appreciate, read and write poetry. Maya Angelou has never been the official poet laureate of the U.S., but was selected as poet laureate of Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. In spite of never holding the official title, Maya Angelou remains one of the most well loved and respected poets in the U.S.

anon5704
Post 1

why is Maya Angelou not on the laureate list? i heard by my english 1 teacher, ms. petersen, that she is the only African American poet in the world.

Moderator's reply: That is a good question! Although Maya Angelou is most certainly one of the most famous African American poets in our history, she has never been appointed as the Poet Laureate. However, two African American women have been appointed as Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed a "Consultant in Poetry" from 1985 to 1986. This title was changed to Poet Laureate in 1986, making Rita Dove technically the first African American woman to be appointed in 1993.

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