December 20 - Poet Laureate Day

Posted December 20, 2016

A crown of laurels

Did you know that, starting on this date in 1985, the United States has had an official position called Poet Laureate?

You may ask, poet what-e-at?

A poet laureate is a poet who is officially appointed by a government to write poems for special events. This has been a thing since the 1300s, and all over the world — and it’s called “poet laureate” because the honored poets were “crowned” with a wreath of laurels, such as was used in Ancient Greece.

When I say that there are poets laureate “all over the world,” I’m talking about at least 18 nations as varied as Canada, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Serbia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Several parts-of-nations such as states, counties, and even cities name official poets laureate!

Currently, American poets laureate receive a $35,000 stipend. This was originally meant to provide a nice standard of living, to remove the cares and worries about making money — so that the poet could devote all of his or her time to writing poetry. However, the stipend was never adjusted for inflation; now it is just a bonus, and poets laureate almost always get the bulk of their salaries from teaching at universities.

In the U.S., poets laureates have unusual “duties,” including overseeing a series of poetry readings at the library and generally promoting poetry. The duties are unusual because American poets laureate are not required to write poems for events and patriotic holidays, which is the traditional poet laureate role. (Still, they sometimes are moved to do so!)

At least 13 U.S. states have poets laureate. I noticed that my own state, California, was an early adopter, appointing our first poet laureate in 1915. Actually, the current U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, was earlier the poet laureate for California.

Juan Felipe Herrera
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