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What is a Poet Laureate?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon154831 — On Feb 22, 2011

I have heard that Carol Ann Duffy was the first Poet Laureate in England. Why do you say that England has never had a female poet laureate?

By anon6870 — On Jan 11, 2008

I was told that Maya Angelou was indeed mentioned as a Poet laureate. After her reading of On the Pulse of morning at the inauguration of Bill Clinton

By anon5704 — On Dec 04, 2007

why is Maya Angelou not on the laureate list? i heard by my english 1 teacher, ms. petersen, that she is the only African American poet in the world.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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