What Is A Poet Laureate?

Poets Laureate, appointed by the Librarian of Congress, are entrusted with raising the status of poetry in the everyday conscience of the American public.

In 1616 King James I of England granted playwright and poet Ben Jonson a pension, thereby establishing the informal position of Poet Laureate. Jonson died in 1637 and a like pension was bestowed to William Davenant.

In 1668 the post of Poet Laureate was officially established as a royal office. As first decreed by Thomas Shadwell, the Poet Laureate of England's sole responsibility was to compose birthday poems and a special New Year's ode for the Royal Family. For more than 150 years this tradition was strictly adhered to until the dignity of the post began to erode to the point where both poet and royal were just going through the motions. Queen Victoria ended the sham and changed the honorific to a recognition of achievement in poetry. If the Poet Laureate feels the urge to compose a verse or two for the royal family, it is still looked upon favorably.

In the United States some local Poets Laureate were recognized in their communities in the 19th century but it was not until 1937 that a similar position to that in England was established in America. The American equivalent was the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a job that carried an impressive title but no pay. In 1985 the United States Congress created an official post with the creation of the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.

The Poet Laureate, in addition to legitimacy, now received an annual monetary stipend, currently $35,000. The money was funded by a gift from Archer M. Huntingdon, son of one of the quartet of founders of the Central Pacific Railroad that worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. Huntingdon was not similarly inclined to business and spent his life in philanthropic pursuits. "Wherever I put my foot down, a museum springs up," he once said.

British Poets Laureate serve for life and since 1668 there have been only 19 poets so honored (no women). In the United States, the Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress to a single term, serving from October to May (there have been many women Poets Laureate). In making the selection, the Librarian of Congress seeks the consul of past and present Poets Laureate and other distinguished poetry critics.

The official duties of a Poet Laureate are few. There is one annual lecture and a poetry reading but little beyond that. The general mandate is to raise the status of poetry in the everyday conscience of the American public. Each Poet Laureate is free to pursue an individual agenda which are predictably diverse. During his service, Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky spearheaded a movement to place poetry in airports, supermarkets and hotel rooms. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks spent her tenure meeting with elementary school students encouraging them to write poetry. Poet Laureate Robert Haas sought to integrate poetry into the fabric of the community with his "Watershed" conference that united novelists, storytellers and poets to talk about their work.

Clearly, the position of Poet Laureate has come a long way since the days when a poet was expected to string together a few rhymes for a royal birthday party.

© High Speed Ventures 2011