A poet laureate is a poet recognized by a government as the official poet of a country, state or city. The term laureate is related to the laurel wreath, which would crown the head of great writers or poets. It is a symbol of Apollo, the Greek god of wisdom. Thus the title of poet laureate implies that the poet is exceptionally skilled and wise.
The tradition of recognizing a poet laureate first began in England. A term prior to the reign of James I would have been “king’s poet.” This reflects earlier traditions of a poet or minstrel that might work only at the pleasure of the king and compose poems that would specifically honor the king. Having a minstrel, storyteller or poet, is much older than the monarchies of England. Any nobleman in most European countries would have had designated poets to help mark special occasions and provide entertainment.
The first “official” poet laureate of England was Ben Johnson, named so by James I in 1617. Other well-known poet laureates include John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Cecil Day-Lewis. England has never had a female poet laureate, though Wales recognizes Gwyneth Lewis as its National Poet.
In the US, the US Librarian of Congress appoints the poet laureate. This position began in 1937, though before, many states appointed someone to this position, and many still do. Some cities, like San Francisco, even appoint city poets.
A poet laureate in the US may still serve for more than one year, but many fulfill only a year’s term, for which they are paid a stipend of 35,000 US dollars (USD). The stipend in these economic times does little to significantly improve the economic circumstances of the poet.
Past notable US poets who have held the position include Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, Robert Penn Warren, Mona Van Duyn, and Joseph Brodsky. Each poet laureate in the US advises the Librarian of Congress on how to bring more citizens to poetry. Most hold special readings and also participate in events that bring a number of poets together to read their works for others.