What is a Poet Laureate?

wiseGEEK Writer

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.

Ben Johnson was named poet laureate of England in 1617.
Ben Johnson was named poet laureate of England in 1617.

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 laurel wreath is a symbol of Apollo, the Greek god of wisdom and poetry.
The laurel wreath is a symbol of Apollo, the Greek god of wisdom and poetry.

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.

Ben Johnson was the first official poet laureate of England.
Ben Johnson was the first official poet laureate of England.

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.

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.

King James I selected the first official poet laureate of England.
King James I selected the first official poet laureate of England.

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Discussion Comments

anon154831

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

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

anon5704

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.

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