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Poets Laureate

A Brief History


Ancient Origins of the Term “Poet Laureate”

The term “laureate” comes from the use of bay laurel leaves in ancient Greece to create wreaths or crowns for heroes and the victors in athletic and literary competitions. In the Middle Ages, “Poet laureate” came to mean the poet chosen to serve a king or other noble patron by writing poems honoring the monarch and the state embodied in that monarch. Petrarch was the first modern poet to be awarded the title, named poet laureate of Rome in 1341.

The Poet Laureate in England

The long tradition of a poet laureate appointed by the king or queen actually belongs to England, however. Richard the Lion-Hearted, who ruled at the end of the 12th century, employed a “versificator Regis” or “King’s poet.” Geoffrey Chaucer carried the title of poet laureate and received an annual wine allowance in the late 14th century. And because Ben Jonson was awarded a pension by James I in 1616, some historians have called him the first English poet laureate. Still, it was not until John Dryden received his official appointment as poet laureate in 1668, that the title was attached to an actual office with named duties: to write verses commemorating royal and national occasions. English poets laureate have usually been appointed for life, but very recently that seems to have changed. Andrew Motion was given the office in 1999 for a specified term of 10 years, and the current British laureate (and first woman in the position), Carol Ann Duffy, has also been appointed to a 10-year term. While the office has been occupied by some of the greatest English poets (William Wordsworth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Ted Hughes), others have refused the appointment (Thomas Gray, Sir Walter Scott and Philip Larkin).

The Poet Laureate in the U.S.

In the United States, the poet laureate tradition began in 1937 with the appointment of the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Joseph Auslander. The Librarian of Congress makes the appointments, for one-year terms — those who have served longer terms have been reappointed in successive years. In 1985, Congress changed the title to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” The American office carries an annual stipend and very few official duties: “The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library. The Laureate gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library's annual poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States.” Most of the recent Laureates have chosen to spend their terms fostering projects intended to champion poetry’s place in American society, like Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project or Billy Collins’ Poetry 180. For more on the American laureates, see our annotated list of all the poets who have served in the office.

Local Poets Laureate

The office of poet laureate has spread to almost all the states (where the appointment is usually made by the governor) and to many local communities throughout the United States. California was the first American state to have a poet laureate — the governor awarded the title to Ina Coolbrith in 1915. Now 40 of the 50 states have laureates, and a number of cities have appointed official poets, usually also called laureates.
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