What is a Poet Laureate

What Is A Poet Laureate?

If only I had a dollar for every time I have been asked:  What exactly is a poet laureate anyway?  The title is impressive, but what does it entail?

The term laureate refers to the ancient practice of crowning victorious athletes and poets with a laurel wreath.  The laurel, in ancient Greece was sacred to Apollo.  It is a term associated with honor. (My friends made a laurel wreath for me composed of bay leaves and silver sparkled ribbon, which they placed on my head at a party they held to celebrate my appointment as poet laureate. One of them explained the practicality of using bay leaves, just in case I ever need them to make spaghetti sauce.)

A poet laureate is a poet, officially appointed by a government, who is often expected to write poems for government occasions.  The tradition of having a poet laureate began with the English monarchs during the 1500s.  Poets laureate held an official position in the royal court, and they were appointed for life.  The first poets laureate composed poems for royal birthdays and wrote an annual New Year’s ode.  The salary varied, but traditionally included alcohol.  Poet laureate Ben Johnson, for example, received a pension of 100 marks, and an annual case of wine! The poet laureate tradition has continues to this day.

Although Britain has had a poet laureate for centuries, the United States has only had one since 1986, when legislators renamed the position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  The Consultant position was initiated in 1937.  The Library of Congress describes the poet laureate as “The nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.”  The Laureate receives an annual stipend, and has a number of official duties.  Each Laureate initiates a particular project aimed to increase American’s awareness and appreciation of poetry.  Our current Poet Laureate is Natasha Tretheway.

Approximately 37 states currently have a poet laureate.  In general, the Governor of each state makes this appointment, and the terms and conditions vary from state to state.  The poet laureate’s responsibility is to write and recite an original poem for a governor’s inauguration and to promote a greater appreciation of poetry within the community.

It is interesting to note that before the United States began its tradition of having poets laureate,South Carolina began the tradition of having a poet symbolize the state’s literary heritage. I am the sixth Poet Laureate of South Carolina.  Previous SC poets laureate were Archibald Rutledge, Helen von Kolnitz Hyer, Dr. Ennis S. Rees, Grace Beacham Freeman, and Bennie Lee Sinclair.  Mr. Rutledge served as poet laureate for nineteen years.  His term exceeds all of the others, and he seems to be the most widely known of the group.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve at the poet laureate of South Carolina. I am grateful for the opportunity, and this column is an excellent way to bring ideas about poetry to a large audience. It’s just the kind of thing a poet laureate should be doing.


The article was published in The Post & Courier in January 2006. 

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