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A poet laureate (plural: poets laureate) is a poet officially appointed by a government, or conferring agency, who is often expected to compose poems for special events and occasions. The term dates back to the appointment of Bernard André by Henry VII of England, though analogous appointments date back to ancient Greece and (in Padua) to Albertino Mussato. In modern times, the title may also be conferred by an organization such as the Poetry Foundation, which has a designated Children's Poet Laureate. Other examples are the Pikes Peak Poet Laureate, which is designated by a "Presenting Partners" group from within the community; the Minnesota Poet Laureate chosen by the League of Minnesota Poets (est. 1934); the Northhampton Poet Laureate chosen by the Northhampton Arts Council, and the Martha's Vineyard Poet Laureate chosen by ten judges representing the Martha's Vineyard Poetry Society.
Today, over a dozen national governments continue the poet laureate tradition.
In ancient Greece the laurel was sacred to the god Apollo, and was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes. This custom, first revived in Padua for Albertino Mussato, was followed by Petrarch's own crowning ceremony in the audience hall of the medieval senatorial palazzo on the Campidoglio on the 8th of April 1341. For lack of detailed knowledge on Roman precedents, these ceremonies took on the character of doctoral candidatures.
It has since become widespread, both in fact and as a metaphor. The word laureate or laureated thus came in English to signify eminence or association with glory (cf. Nobel laureate). Laureate letters were once the dispatches announcing a victory. The term laureate became associated with degrees awarded by European universities (the term baccalaureate for the degree of bachelor reflects this idea). As a royal degree in rhetoric, poet laureate was awarded at European universities in the Middle Ages. The term might also refer to the holder of such a degree, which recognized skill in rhetoric, grammar and language.
The Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate is appointed as an officer of the Library of Parliament. The position alternates between an English and French speaking laureate each term. Candidates must be able to write in both English and French, must have a substantial publication history (including poetry) displaying literary excellence and must have written work reflecting Canada, among other criteria.
The first ever Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate was awarded to George Bowering in 2002. In 2004, the title was transferred to Pauline Michel and in 2006 to John Steffler. His term ended on December 3, 2008 and Pierre DesRuisseaux was named the new laureate on April 28, 2009. In December, 2011, Fred Wah was named Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada.
The title Saoi, equivalent to Poet Laureate in Ireland but including artists and writers distinguished in other aspects of literature, may be held by up to 7 members of Aosdana at any given time. Holders include: dramatist Brian Friel and poet Seamus Heaney.
The unofficial Poet Laureate of Netherlands is currently: Ramsey Nasr as Dichter des Vaderlands (Poet of the Fatherland). Gerrit Komrij was the first Dichter des Vaderlands. The title isn't officially designated but was created by Dutch media.
New Zealand has only had an official poet laureate for a few years. Originally sponsored by Te Mata vineyards and known as the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate, the award is now administered by the National Library of New Zealand and the holder is officially called New Zealand Poet Laureate. The post is held for two years. Unlike the butt of sack traditionally offered to English poets laureate, New Zealand offers a Tokotoko, which is a carved wooden ceremonial orator's staff.
The first holder of the title was Bill Manhire who held the post of Poet Laureate from 1998–99. Other former Poets Laureate include, Hone Tuwhare (2000–01), Elizabeth Smither (2002–03), Brian Turner (2004–05), Jenny Bornholdt (2006–07), Michele Leggott (2008–09) and Cilla McQueen (2009–11). The current poet laureate is Ian Wedde (2011–2013).
From the more general use of the term "poet laureate" arose its restriction in England to an official office of Poet Laureate, attached to the royal household. King James I essentially created the position as it is known today for Ben Jonson in 1617, although Jonson's appointment does not seem to have been made formally. The office was a development from the practice in earlier times when minstrels and versifiers formed part of the king's retinue. Richard Cœur-de-Lion had a versificator regis (English: king's poet), Gulielmus Peregrinus (William the Pilgrim), and Henry III had a versificator named Master Henry. In the fifteenth century, John Kay, a versifier, described himself as Edward IV's "humble poet laureate".
No single authentic definitive record exists of the office of Poet Laureate of England. According to Wharton, King Henry I paid 10 shillings a year to a versificator regis. Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400) was called Poet Laureate, being granted in 1389 an annual allowance of wine. W. Hamilton describes Chaucer, Gower, Kay, Andrew Bernard, John Skelton, Robert Whittington, Richard Edwards and Samuel Daniel as "volunteer Laureates".
John Skelton studied at the University of Oxford in the early 1480s and was advanced to the degree of "poet laureate" in 1488, when he joined the court of King Henry VII to tutor the future Henry VIII. The title of laureate was also conferred on him by the University of Louvain in 1492 and by the University of Cambridge in 1492–3. He soon became famous for his rhetoric, satire and translations and was held in high esteem by the printer William Caxton, who wrote, in the preface to The Boke of Eneydos compyled by Vargyle (Modern English: The Book of the Aeneid, compiled by Virgil) (1490):
But I pray mayster John Skelton, late created poete laureate in the unyversite of Oxenforde, to oversee and correct this sayd booke.
The title of Poet Laureate, as a royal office, was first conferred by letters patent on John Dryden in 1670, two years after Davenant's death. The post then became a regular institution. Dryden's successor Shadwell originated annual birthday and New Year odes. The poet laureate became responsible for writing and presenting official verses to commemorate both personal occasions, such as the monarch's birthday or royal births and marriages, and public occasions, such as coronations and military victories. His activity in this respect has varied according to circumstances, and the custom ceased to be obligatory after Pye's death. The office fell into some contempt before Southey, but took on a new lustre from his personal distinction and that of Wordsworth and Tennyson. Wordsworth stipulated, before accepting the honour, that no formal effusions from him should be considered a necessity; but Tennyson was generally happy in his numerous poems of this class.
On Tennyson's death there was a considerable feeling that no possible successor was acceptable, William Morris and Swinburne being hardly suitable as court poets. Eventually, however, the undesirability of breaking with tradition for temporary reasons, and thus severing the one official link between literature and the state, prevailed over the protests against allowing anyone of inferior genius to follow Tennyson. It may be noted that abolition had been similarly advocated when Warton and Wordsworth died. Edward Gibbon had condemned the position's artificial approach to poetry:
From Augustus to Louis, the muse has too often been false and venal: but I much doubt whether any age or court can produce a similar establishment of a stipendiary poet, who in every reign, and at all events, is bound to furnish twice a year a measure of praise and verse, such as may be sung in the chapel, and, I believe, in the presence, of the sovereign. I speak the more freely, as the best time for abolishing this ridiculous custom is while the prince is a man of virtue and the poet a man of genius.— Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter LXX (footnote)
The salary has varied, but traditionally includes some alcohol. Ben Jonson first received a pension of 100 marks, and later an annual "terse of Canary wine". Dryden had a pension of £300 and a butt of Canary wine. Pye received £27 instead of the wine. Tennyson drew £72 a year from the Lord Chamberlain's department, and £27 from the Lord Steward's "in lieu of the butt of sack".
The present British Poet Laureate is Carol Ann Duffy, appointed poet laureate in May 2009. The United Kingdom also has a position called "Children's poet laureate".
The Edinburgh Makar was traditionally seen as the unpaid equivalent of a poet laureate, tasked with representing and promoting poetry in Scotland. Since 2004, the Scottish Parliament has appointed an official Scots Makar, from the Makars of the various cities. On 16 February 2004, Professor Edwin Morgan was appointed to both the Edinburgh post and the national role. On his death he was succeeded (in January 2011) by Liz Lochhead.
Wales has had a long tradition of poets and bards under royal patronage, with extant writing from mediæval royal poets and earlier. An office of National Poet for Wales was established in April 2005. The first holder, Gwyneth Lewis, was followed by Gwyn Thomas
The United States Library of Congress has since 1937 appointed an official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress until 1984. An Act of Congress changed the name of the position in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A number of the American states' legislatures have created official government positions which are occupied by Poets Laureate who are prominent either locally, nationally, or sometimes both.
Laureates receive a US$35,000 stipend and are given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a charge to promote poetry. No other duties are specified, and laureates are not required to compose for government events or in praise of government officials. However, after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the Poet Laureate then in office, Billy Collins, was asked to write a poem to be read in front of a special joint session of Congress. Collins wrote "The Names" which he read on September 6, 2002, which is available in streaming audio and video. When the $35,000 stipend was originally instituted, the amount was quite large and was intended to allow the poet laureate to abandon worries about earning a living and devote his or her time entirely to writing poetry. That amount has remained the same over the years, so the intent of making it a nice living for a poet is no longer being fulfilled. Now it functions as a bonus for a poet who usually is teaching at a university and earns the bulk of his or her living that way.
U.S. Poets Laureate: Philip Levine was named the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States. Levine will succeed W.S. Merwin, who was the country's seventeenth Poet Laureate. Former Poets: Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Joseph Brodsky, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Hass, Donald Hall, Robert Pinsky (three terms), Mark Strand, Audre Lorde, and Maxine Kumin, among others.
The state of California under Governor Hiram Warren Johnson, established a state Poet Laureate and appointed Ina Donna Coolbrith as the first honorary Poet Laureate on June 30, 1915. Coolbrith was later acknowledged as the "Loved Laurel-Crowned Poet of California" by a 1919 state Senate resolution, and she retained the title until her death in 1928. Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed California Poet Laureate by Gov. Jerry Brown in March, 2012.
The state of Utah has appointed a Poet Laureate since 1997. The first Poet Laureate was David Lee who was appointed from January 24, 1997 to December 2002. Followed by Kenneth W. Brewer from January 24, 2003 to March 15, 2006. The third Poet Laureate was Katharine Coles from October 27, 2006 to May, 2012. Currently the Utah Poet Laureate is Lance Larsen, appointed May 3rd by Governor Gary Herbert.
The commonwealth of Virginia has appointed a Poet Laureate since December 18, 1936. The first Poet Laureate was Carter Warner Wormeley; he was appointed for life. The appointments made from 1942 until 1992 were for one year at a time, many were for more than one term. In 1992, the appointment was increased to a two-year term, and beginning in 1998 the appointments were made from list of nominees presented by the Poetry Society of Virginia; which was established at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1923.