What is a Poet Laureate?

Poets write poems, but what is a poet laureate?

A number of countries, regions or groups appoint poet laureates. In the United States, the Library of Congress selects a poet laureate consultant. This one-year position is usually referred to as the most-honored poet in the United States during their appointment term. Nearly every U.S. state also names poet laureates. The Library of Congress maintains a resource list and interactive map of all the different poets receiving this honor across the country.

History of Poets Laureate

The laureate title for a greatly-honored poet was first granted by the British royal household in the 17th century. “Laureate” refers to a crown of laurel leaves, which is an honor dating back to ancient Greece given to victorious military leaders and famous philosophers alike.

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The first British laureate poet was Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Many of the United Kingdom’s most famous poets have been named to the laureate position since then.

In the United States, the Library of Congress first chose Joseph Auslander as its consultant poet in 1937. In 1985, Congress voted to add the title of “laureate” to the honorary position.

Other Poets Laureate

Poetry is frequently thought of as a highly prestigious, but low-paying form of writing. State libraries, arts councils, and poetry society select poets to receive state, local and regional laureate poetry awards to provide some recognition, and also a stipend offering financial support. Not every state or arts council awards a laureate poet every year, and some terms are longer than a single year. Dana Gioia was named laureate poet for California in 2015, for example, and an earlier state laureate, Charles B. Garrigus, served for over 30 years. Other regions and cities have begun to name poets laureate, the New York Times reported in 2013.


British Laureate Poets

The laureate poet position in the United Kingdom was regarded as an “appointment for life” until the 1990s when the term was changed to ten years. In keeping with the tradition of the poet receiving a payment from the royal family, British laureates have been asked to write poems in honor of royal anniversaries and other events. The pay was increased to about £25,000 as of 2009, similar to the U.S. laureate stipend of $35,000. Carol Ann Duffy became the first female laureate poet in the UK in 2009.

One past U.S. laureate poet, Fresno, California resident Philip Levine, questioned the meaning of the award when another Fresno poet, James Tyner, received the award from the city. Tyner was awarded the laureate poet title and a $2,000 stipend from Fresno for his street-oriented, locally-themed poetry. Levine’s award from the Library of Congress includes a $35,000 stipend and national recognition as the country’s top poet. Local poets may be recognized in order to promote the arts in a city or region, or, as the city of Fresno chose to recognize James Tyner, promote a voice that reflected a city that felt like there was a “missing piece” in expressing itself to the outside world.

Cities, regions, arts associations and nations have different answers to the question “What is a Poet Laureate?” The award and tradition helps to keep poetry alive.