As you may know, the United States has a newly inaugurated Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway. But what exactly is a poet laureate? Who appoints them? Is it actually a real job, or just an honorary title? I realized I really had no idea, so I did a little research. Here’s what I found out.
You probably recognize the word “laureate” as a title used for people who have won the Nobel Prize or other major awards. The concept of “laureate” actually dates back to antiquity, when prestigious achievements were rewarded with a wreath of laurel leaves. The first poet laureate to be crowned after the Dark Ages was Petrarch in 1341 (he actually coined the term “Dark Ages”). If you’ve ever taken an introductory course to poetry, you’ve probably heard of Petrarchan sonnets and Petrarchan conceits. So Petrarch is a pretty big deal.
In England, there’s a long history of poets laureate, beginning during the reign of Richard I (a.k.a. Richard the Lion-Heart) in the twelfth century. The official title at that time was “versificator Regis,” which means “King’s poet.” Some sources indicate Chaucer may have been one of the many precursors to the poet laureate position – in his case, he was awarded a pension by Edward III (which may have also included a wine allowance).
In 1616, James I gave the poet Ben Jonson royal patronage and a substantial pension – thus some consider him to be the first true Poet Laureate in Britain. In 1668, John Dryden became the first official Poet Laureate of England. Dryden’s tenure marked the first time the position involved writing poetry for public occasions. In the UK, the office has changed very little over the years, though since 1999 the tenure of the Poet Laureate is only 10 years instead of life-long. Strangely enough, John Dryden was the only Poet Laureate to ever be fired from the office – a devout Catholic, he refused to swear allegiance to Protestant monarchs William and Mary.
In the US, the position of Poet Laureate has been around since 1937, though the title was “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” until 1985. Now the official title is “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” The Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, serves from October to May, and gets a stipend of $35,000 that comes out of a private endowment.
The Library of Congress gives the position very few requirements, which allows each Laureate to use the position differently. The first Consultants in Poetry served as scholars, adding to the Library of Congress’s collection. The position currently allows for much greater freedom. Some Laureates prefer to focus on their own work during their tenure, while others strive to bring poetry to the public. For example, Joseph Brodsky physically put poetry in public places such as airports. In the age of the internet, several Poet Laureates have started online poetry awareness projects.
To learn more about the U.S. Poet Laureate, you can check out From the Catbird Seat, the Library of Congress blog specifically dedicated to literature and poetry. And there are several other blogs from the Library of Congress, too! If you can’t easily get to the Library of Congress, many states also have their own individual Poet Laureate. Figure out who yours is and see if you can attend any community events!