An overview of the poets laureates in the United States

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What do Rita Dove, WS Merwin and Louise Glück have in common? In addition to being renowned American poets, all three have served as official American poets at some point. Given the long history of American poetry, it’s no surprise that there are official roles dedicated to celebrating and promoting this revered art form.

Appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress, the Poet Laureate typically engages in a community project of national significance. Current poet laureate Joy Harjo – the first Native American to hold the post – has worked shed light on Native American poetry and how it adds to the overall tapestry of American poetry. She worked on the first historically comprehensive anthology of Native American poetry in When the light of the world was dimmed, our songs came through. Her signature winning project, “Living nations, living words” is a digital compilation of samples of 47 contemporary Indigenous poets from across the country.

Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States

Brief history of the position

The post of Poet Laureate was created in 1936, when the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington endowed “a chair of English-language poetry at the Library of Congress.” Joseph auslander became the first poetry consultant at the Library of Congress. Auslander served until 1941, when Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress at the time, limited the consultant’s term to one year and appointed Allen Tate as successor to Auslander.

Rita Dove, America's first African-American Poet Laureate
Rita Dove, America’s first African-American Poet Laureate

The position was called “Library of Congress Poetry Consultant” until 1986, and all poets in that position are now called Poetry Consultants. The title “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” came into effect thereafter, with the poets in this position being called the US Poet Laureate. The Poets Laureates have also been allowed to serve a second term since 1950.

the first woman to become a poetry consultant was Louise Bogan, and the first African American was Robert Hayden. Since 1986, following the change of title, the first female poet laureate of the United States has been Mona Van Duyn. Rita Colombe was the first African-American poet laureate and Juan Felipe Herrera was the first Latin poet laureate.

Laureate of State Poets

Long before the nomination of the first National Poet Laureate, however, different states already had their Poet Laureates in place. the first poet laureate of state was Ina Coolbrith, named California Poet Laureate in 1915. The second person to become State Poet Laureate was Alice Polk Hill, who became Colorado Poet Laureate in 1919.

Portrait of Ina Coolbrith, the first person to become a State Poet.
Portrait of Ina Coolbrith, the first person to become a State Poet.

State poets laureates are usually appointed by the governor. Applications are processed by the National Council for the Arts or Human Sciences. State Poets Laureates are usually appointed for a two-year term, which can be renewed for two years. While the State Poet Laureate is an official position, appointed by a member of the government, there are also unofficial State Poets. Indiana has official and unofficial positions for State Poets Laureate.

Currently, 44 states have Poet Laureate positions. Instead of the State Poet Laureate, Alaska has a State Laureate Writer, while Idaho has an Official Writer-in-Residence. Forty-three of these 44 positions are occupied, Alaska being vacant.

The post of Official Alaskan Writer was established in the early 1960s, with Margaret Mielke being the first poet to hold the post in 1963. Since then, the state has had 14 other poets at its helm, with Nora Marks Dauenhauer as the last poet to hold the post, in post from 2012 to 2014. The post has been vacant since.

The District of Columbia, while not a state, has a Poet Laureate position – also currently vacant. Sterling Brown was the District of Columbia’s first Poet Laureate, named in 1984. The post was abolished after Brown’s death in 1989, until poet E. Ethelbert Miller presented a proposal to restore it, as well. than a recommendation for Dolores Kendrick to become DC’s Second Poet Laureate. The proposal was approved and Kendrick was nominated in 1999. She was a Poet Laureate until her death in November 2017.

There are four states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, and New Jersey – that do not have a Poet Laureate position at all. Apart from Massachusetts, which has never held such a position, each of these states has different histories.

Pennsylvania

The post of Poet Laureate for the State of Pennsylvania was established in 1993 with the appointment of Sam Hazo. Hazo – the first and only Pennsylvania State Poet Laureate – held this post until 2003, when told that his services were no longer needed. This ended the position in Pennsylvania.

Michigan

Michigan’s history is similar to that of Pennsylvania. Appointed in 1952, Edgar A. Guest was State Poet Laureate until his death in 1959. There has been no State Poet Laureate since then, although Will Carleton is often cited as the first poet. Michigan official. The Library of Congress writes that they could not find any record of Carleton’s appointment and postulate the possibility that Carleton held an unofficial honorary position as State Poet Laureate due to his great popularity.

A bill to bring the post of state laureate back to Michigan was passed by the Senate in 2005, but did not emerge from the House of Representatives.

New Jersey

Created in 1999, the post of poet laureate was first occupied by Gerald Stern from 2000 to 2002, when Amiri Baraka became the second New Jersey Poet Laureate. Baraka has come under heavy criticism for his poem “Somebody Blew Up America”, which was seen to have anti-Semitic sentiments in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Baraka read her poem at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in September 2002, after which Jim McGreevy, governor of New Jersey at the time, called for her resignation. When Baraka refused, McGreevy found no legal basis for firing a Poet Laureate. So a bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate to eliminate the post of state poet laureate in October. It was passed and came into effect on July 2, 2003, marking the end of Baraka’s tenure and the entire New Jersey State Poet Laureate position.

Poets laureates in other countries

Besides the United States, there is the post of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. The position dates back to 17e century when John Dryden received the title of Charles II. The current British poet is Carol ann duffy, who was nominated in 2009. She is also the first female poet laureate.

Canada also has a position of Parliamentary Poet Laureate, established in 2001. The current Poet Laureate is Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer, the ninth poet to hold the post. She was appointed in February of this year.

This shows that the work of poets is important, not only on a personal level, but also when it comes to marking national moments, history and identity. Honoring poets with positions like Poet Laureate helps keep a long and cherished tradition of poetry alive.


I have used the help of many resources while writing this article. There is a interactive map of all the state poets. To learn more about the current American Poet Laureate, you can read on his work here. the Library of Congress and The Academy of American Poets both go down in the history of the poets laureates. There is also information about city ​​poets (America loves its poets, it seems) or how to create a post of poet laureate there where you are.


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