The tradition of honouring poets comes from Ancient Greece, in which poets and heroes were given laurel wreaths. Albertina Masato of Padua and Francesco Petrarca, commonly known as Petrarch, are considered the first crowned poet laureate‘s after the end of the Classical era.
The Poet Laureate
The Position of the Poet Laureate in England
In England, Ben Jonson was given a royal pension from King James I in 1617. There is no formal declaration of his position as laureate, but he was succeeded by another poet William Davenant. Eventually, the official title was coined in 1668 with the appointment of poet John Dryden. He was the dominating literary figure of Restoration England and is credited with establishing the heroic couplet. Today, his work is noted for its factual nature, and expression of thought in a precise manner. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Since the 1600s, the post has become a regular institution. Over the years the poet laureate has been tasked with various responsibilities. They had to compose poems for different special occasions. This could include royal birthdays, births, and marriages. They might also write on coronations in military victories. Eventually, these obligations became optional.
It was with the appointment of Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson that the position of poet laureate gained a new distinction. It was also at this time that poets began making stipulations when accepting the role. For example, Wordsworth made sure that no formal duties would be pressed upon him. Interestingly, after Tennyson’s death there seemed to be no acceptable successor. This was a problem that confronted the country a few other times.
Eventually, Alfred Austin was named poet laureate in 1896. He was followed by Robert Bridges in 1913, John Masefield in 1930, Cecile Day-Lewis in 1968, Sir John Betjeman in 1972, Ted Hughes in 1984, and Andrew Motion in 1999.
Carol Ann Duffy’s 10-year tenure ended in May 2019. She was the first woman to hold the position. This was, she stated, the only reason she accepted. Simon Armitage has succeeded her and will serve as the poet laureate until 2029. He is the professor of poetry at the University of Leeds, and has received numerous awards for his poetry. He has been publishing collections since 1989. His most recent was Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, published in May 2019.
The history of the poet laureate’s salary is varied. In the 1600s, alcohol was consistently part of the pension. In the case of Ben Jonson, he received 100 marks, and an amount of canary wine. John Dryden received more money, but the same kind of wine. As the years progressed, the amount of money changed. For example, Alfred Lord Tennyson was given 72 pounds a year from the Lord Chamberlain‘s department and another 27 pounds from the Lord Steward’s, instead of wine. The modern salary is 5,750 pounds.
The Position of the Poet Laureate in the United States
The history of the United States poet laureate is slightly different. From 1937 to 1984 the United States Library of Congress appointed a “Consultant in Poetry”. In 1985, the name was changed to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” to the Library of Congress. Additionally, the fifty American states have at different times named their own poets laureate. The tradition began in most states around the late 1900s. Some examples include John Denver in Colorado, Laurie Ann Guerrero in Texas and Joyce Sutphen in Minnesota.
Laureates in the United States receive a stipend $35,000 and are tasked with overseeing a series of readings and lectures at the Library of Congress. They are also in charge of promoting poetry in general. These are the only specified duties and there is no requirement for composition for government events or officials. The $35,000 stipend was originally put in place so that the poet would be able to support themselves fully, while spending their time writing poetry. The amount has not increased since the 1980s, therefore making it more of a bonus than a real salary.
The first American poet laureate was Joseph Auslander. He served as the “Consultant and Poetry” from 1937 to 1941. A list of names has followed. Among those are Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, William Stafford, Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joseph Brodsky, Billy Collins, and Tracy K Smith.
The poet laureate, as of 2019, of the United States, is Joy Harjo. She is a writer, academic, musician, and Native American activist. She is also the first Native American to hold the position. Harjo is currently a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She published her first volume of poetry, The Last Song, in 1975. She was named to the role in 2019, and is the 23rd person to hold the position. Her most recent publication was An American sunrise: Poems, published in 2019.
The Rest of the World
While the United States and England have the strongest history of naming poets laureate, other countries engage in the tradition as well. In Canada, the first poet laureate was George Bowering named in 2002. The current poet laureate in that country is Michel Pleau, named in 2014. In Ireland, the last person to hold the opposition was Robert Jephson who died in 1803. The country has a modern equivalent of the title known as Saoi.
Other countries that have some variation of a national poet laureate include New Zealand, North Korea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Iran, and more.