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The Poet Laureate

The office of poet laureate has a long and rich history, tracing its origins unofficially as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer, perhaps even before that. As kings and rulers grew in power their desire to experience the arts grew as well. Appreciation for the ancient art of poetry led to kings unofficially selecting a popular and well-known poet to write poetry that would honor the king and his court. This later led to kings choosing poets as official versifiers for the king's court.

Ben Jonson was appointed poet laureate of England in 1616. John Dryden, however, was the first English poet to carry the official title in 1668. Since then, Great Britain has appointed its poet laureates to lifetime posts and announced each officeholder in the official newspaper London Gazette.

Among the poets who have held this title are such stalwart gems as Robert Southey (1813-1843), William Wordsworth (1843-1850), Alfred Lord Tennyson (1850-1892), John Masefield (1930-1967), Cecil Day-Lewis (1968-1972) and Sir John Betjeman (1972-1984). Thomas Gray and Samuel Rogers both declined the appointment in 1757 and 1850, respectively.

Verses of the Poets Laureate The United States established an honorary, uncompensated position called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in 1937. The first person to hold this position was Joseph Auslander who remained until 1941 and was replaced by Allen Tate who served for one year. Since then the post has been occupied by Robert Penn Warren (1944-45), Karl Shapiro (1946-47), Robert Lowell (1947-48), Conrad Aiden, who was the first to serve two terms, from 1950-52, Robert Frost (1958-59), Howard Nemerov (1963-64), Stanley Kunitz (1974-76), Maxine Kumin (1981-82) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1985-86). In 1952, William Carlos Williams was appointed to the position but never served. To read about this and other controversies surrounding the position of poet laureate, click here.

In 1985, Congress authorized the poet consultancy to be renamed the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. The position, for the first time, was awarded an annual stipend, which is now $35,000. Initially, the stipend came from a well-known philanthropist by the name of Arthur Huntington. The librarian of Congress appoints the laureate for a single term from October through May each year. There are no official duties except to attend one annual lecture and poetry reading. Aside from that, each poet is expected to work on their own poetry and to promote the status of poetry to the American public. The current poet laureate is Charles Simic.

Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren The first U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress was Robert Penn Warren (1986-87). He was followed by Richard Wilbur (1987-88). Howard Nemerov served from 1988-1990. Mark Strand was appointed in 1990 and served until 1991. From 1991-92, Joseph Brodsky assumed the post. Mona Van Duyn was the first female poet laureate from 1992-93. Rita Dove served from 1993-95, Robert Hass from 1995-97 and Robert Pinsky from 1997-2000. Stanley Kunitz was resurrected from the past upon his appointment in 2000 and he served for a full year before being replaced by Billy Collins (2001-2003). Luise Gluck served from 2003-2004 before being replaced by Ted Kooser, who served until 2006. Kooser was replaced by Donald Hall, who served for one full year before being replaced by Charles Simic. Recently, California poet Kay Ryan was selected to be the next poet laureate and will serve for the next year.

Canada introduced its first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Bowering, in 2002. The office is a two-year term that involves a $12,000 stipend and a $10,000 budget for living and travel expenses. The post is now held by John Steffler. It was previously held by Pauline Michel.

New Zealand recently appointed Michele Leggott as its poet laureate. Leggot will receive $75,000 NZ for her 18-month appointment.

For additional information click the following links:

The Academy of American Poets
Charles Simic
Ted Kooser
Billy Collins' Poetry 180 Project
Stanley Kunitz
Robert Pinsky

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