This April marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, which was begun in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to spread appreciation for one of the world’s oldest literary art forms. The month will see libraries, schools, publishers, and poets holding events to celebrate verse, and it also marks the appointment of a Poet Laureate. For those wondering what a Poet Laureate is, exactly, and what they do, here are a few facts about the honor.
1. THE OFFICIAL TITLE IN THE UNITED STATES IS POET LAUREATE CONSULTANT IN POETRY TO THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
The Poet Laureate position as we know it today was established in 1985 through an act of Congress. Before that, there was an equivalent position called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, established in 1937. Only poets appointed since the 1985 title went into effect are known as laureates. Poets appointed before that are known as “consultants in poetry,” or just “consultants.” While the positions are considered equivalent in terms of status, the duties associated with them are different. Consultants functioned as something like a collections specialist to the Library of Congress, while laureates focus more on public engagement and education.
2. SEVERAL OTHER COUNTRIES, AND EVEN U.S. STATES AND CITIES, HAVE THEIR OWN.
Great Britain has long expressed their appreciation of poetry by designating a laureate (they've had one almost continuously since 1668), but they are far from the only nation to do so. Over a dozen national governments take part in the tradition, either as a rotating post or a means of occasionally honoring one of their great poets. In addition, most U.S. states have their own laureates, and the role has continued to expand, with several cities (and even boroughs like Brooklyn) also appointing laureates.
3. THEY ARE APPOINTED IN THE UNITED STATES BY THE LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS.
Britain’s Poet Laureate is appointed by the monarch with advice from the Prime Minister, and local poet laureates are appointed by various organizations, but the official Poet Laureate of the United States is chosen each year by the Librarian of Congress. The Librarian consults with current and former laureates, distinguished critics of poetry, and staff in the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center in order to make a choice. And, of course, the Librarian has access to the Library’s massive collection of poetry to inform them when making the selection.
4. THEIR OFFICIAL DUTIES ARE MINIMAL, AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS VARY GREATLY.
In general, Poets Laureate serve to raise national awareness and appreciation of poetry. When it comes to specific duties, they are expected to give a reading or lecture to begin their term and another one to conclude it, but beyond that they are largely free to shape the position according to their own interests. Some throw themselves into public outreach, initiating large-scale public projects and initiatives, while others focus more quietly on their work. Joseph Brodsky, for instance, piloted a program to bring poetry to public spaces like supermarkets and airports, while Rita Dove highlighted the African-American experience and was a champion of children’s poetry.
5. THEY ARE PAID, BUT NOT MUCH.
Archer M. Huntington via Huntingdon.org // Public Domain
The United States Poet Laureate receives a $35,000 stipend, an amount once intended to free the Laureate from worrying about making a living and allow them to focus solely on poetry. This salary is not paid by taxpayers, but by an endowment set up by philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington in 1936. The amount has stayed the same since 1985, and while it hasn't kept up with inflation, it now forms a nice bonus to the appointee’s other work. In olden times in England, the Laureate’s salary used to include an allotment of wine, a perk that, if added to the US Laureate’s pay, would probably help sweeten the $35,000 stipend. (The UK revived the tradition in 1972, and their poet laureate receives a barrel of sherry.)
6. THERE IS A CHILDREN’S LAUREATE.
Love of reading begins early on for many people, and a few institutions are doing their part to foster that by appointing writers to honorary positions related to children’s literature. In 2006, the Poetry Foundation appointed its first Children's Poet Laureate (now called the Young People’s Poet Laureate), aimed at raising awareness of children’s poetry and encouraging more poets to write for kids. The Library of Congress also has a National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, modeled on Britain’s Children’s Laureate and given biannually to an author or illustrator who has made a significant contribution to young people's literature. The literary scope of the position is broader than poetry alone, though, and it is currently held by comic book artist Gene Luen Yang.
7. THEY ARE CARRYING ON AN ANCIENT TRADITION.
A golden laurel wreath from the Hellenistic era,Jebulon via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Designating a poet laureate is a practice that began hundreds of years ago. The position of poet laureate was a prestigious one in the Greco-Roman world, but it disappeared at the end of the classical age. In 1315 Italian poet, historian, statesman, and playwright Albertino Mussato was handed a scroll and crowned with a wreath of myrtle, ivy, and laurel (hence the term “laureate”), becoming the first Poet Laureate of the post-classical age for his tragedy Ecerinis. In 1341, Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate by Rome, starting the tradition that continues to this day. Today’s honorees have done away with the crown, but they maintain the name it inspired.
8. RITA DOVE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN AND THE FIRST WOMAN APPOINTED TO THE POSITION OF POET LAUREATE.
She was also the youngest at the time of her appointment—Dove was 40 when she was made seventh Poet Laureate in 1993. (Other women and African-Americans served as Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress before her.)
9. MEXICAN-AMERICAN LAUREATE JUAN FELIPE HERRERA HAS BEEN APPOINTED TO A SECOND TERM.
Herrera, the country’s first-ever Latino Laureate, was appointed to a second term on April 13. Herrera is a son of migrant workers, and his poems explore themes of Mexican-American identity and experience.
10. THE PUBLIC CONTRIBUTED TO ONE OF HERRERA’S POETRY PROJECTS.
Herrera instituted a two-part online project during his first term as Laureate, La Casa de Colores. The first part of this undertaking, known as La Familia, invited participants to contribute a verse to an epic collaborative poem about the American experience. The project, which spanned the length of Herrera’s term, unfolded monthly, with a new theme each month about an aspect of American life, values, or culture. The public reportedly submitted 500 to 800 contributions each month before the project ended early this month. A second phase, El Jardín—in which Herrera shares treasures from the Library of Congress collections—is still online, and Herrera is considering projects for his second term, which begins in September.