What is a poet laureate and what does a poet laureate do?

April 2, 2023   🕑 11 minutes read

Poets laureate have been around for over 2,500 years (at least). If you were wondering what a poet laureate is or what a poet laureate does, read on.

You might have heard of poets laureate. You might even have some vague, and likely mistaken, idea of what they do. Here is a brief introduction to what a poet laureate is and does.

What is a poet laureate?

What is a poet laureate?

A poet laureate is a poet who has been appointed by a government or some other organization. It is their responsibility promote poetry, which usually includes composing and reciting poems for special occasions.

National governments, such as the UK and the U.S. appoint poets laureate.

Regional governments, such as states and provinces, appoint poets laureate.

Local governments, such as cities or counties, appoint poets laureate.

It is rare that a poet laureate is appointed by anyone other than government. A notable exception is the Young People’s Poet Laureate, conferred by the Poetry Foundation.

How is a poet laureate chosen?

The City of Anaheim was looking for a resident national poetry month
who had published at least one book of poetry, and who had community organization and public speaking experience.

Wendy Van Camp believes she caught the eye of the head librarian when she read from her debut poetry collection at the city open-mic.

Wendy Van Camp with Dalek and Tardis

Poet Laureate and scifaiku maven Wendy Van Camp with a (hopefully disabled) Dalek and the Tardis at the Gallifrey One Dr. Who convention in 2023

“I proudly held up my book for all to see at the Open-Mic. After the reading, I received a letter from the head librarian strongly urging me to apply for the poet laureate position. A month later, I was interviewed by a panel of city officials where I did a test reading of my poetry with the panel as the audience.”

But this speculative poet was blindsided like the rest of us by the pandemic. Three days after being fingerprinted as part of the hiring process, the entire city shut down. A few months later, she was told the poet laureate role was shut down indefinitely and might not return.

Fast forward to January 2022. The city asked Wendy to interview a second time. In April of 2022, she began a two-year term.

Barbara Southard was poet laureate of Suffolk County on Long Island from 2019 to 2021. Her selection committee was made up of former poet laureates in her county, and she was ratified by the legislature. She concurs that a poet laureate is chosen for the quality of their work and for the time and dedication they put into serving the community they live in by encouraging new writers and seasoned writers to be heard.

Three times a poet laureate

Being chosen to be poet laureate once is an honor. Being chosen three times in three different communities is quite spectacular.

Juan Perez was selected poet laureate by the San Antonio Poets Association. He got that one-year 2011-2012 role through competition. There was and a yearly points system based on things like the number of poetry readings, contest wins and poetry publications. “I had been in this competition for at least six years before finally winning.”

In 2012, the Chicano, Indigenous poet was honored with the lifetime title of Chupacabra Poet Laureate, “bestowed by some south Texas regional poets for my constant writing of and pushing of the lore of the urban/mythological beast.”

Juan’s third stint was as the 2019-2020 Corpus Christi poet laureate. A committee of poets of the People’s Poetry Festival chose him. They awarded a commendation from the Corpus Christi City Council at the festival. He was the second of now four city poet laureates so far.

Can he make it four? He has also been nominated for the one-year-term State of Texas’ Poet Laureate position several times since 2006. But Texas is huge and the number of great poets is even huger. “…so maybe one day.”

A poet laureate’s trappings of office

Poet laureate of the Yukon proclamation

Official proclamation
naming PJ Johnson (now PJ Yukon)
Poet Laureate of the Yukon

PJ Yukon became poet laureate in more organic manner. “My laureateship is not a paid position, governed appointment, or program. It is a title granted in recognition of my contributions and achievements as an artist.”

On July 1, 1994, Canada Day, she was invested by Yukon Commissioner the Honourable Kenneth McKinnon as the first official “Poet Laureate of the Yukon”. And, she notes, “the first officially-invested poet laureate in Canada, and the only non-British invested poet laureate in the world.”

She also got all the hardware. A signed official proclamation. The official “Poet Laureate of the Yukon” pin as her insignia. And her personal symbol of office, the carved Talking Stick that was presented to her by former Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin.

Most poets laureate serve just two to three years, and most positions are fairly new. PJ’s and Juan’s lifetime appointments are exceptions to that convention.

What does a poet laureate do?

The U.S. “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” probably does less than many local poets laureate.

The Library of Congress appoints the poet laureate, but requires very little of the position so that the poet can pursue their own projects. The poet laureate is required to deliver an annual lecture and poetry reading. They also introduce poets at the Library of Congress poetry series, one of the oldest in the United States. The annual series has been going on since the 1940s, and also includes fiction readings, lectures, sometimes theatre. The U.S. poets laureate have worked with over 2,000 poets and authors at the Library of Congress, who have read into the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.

One of the best known duties of the British poet laureate is to write a poem for the monarch’s official birthday. This tradition dates back to the reign of King George III, and has been carried on by subsequent poets laureate. The poem is usually read aloud at a public ceremony, and is often broadcast on television and radio.

But that’s not quite what most poets laureate do.

Poets laureate are organizers

So, what does a poet laureate do?

  • Host poetry workshops
  • Recite poems
  • Organize literary events
  • Judge poetry contests
  • Compose poems for special occasions
  • Introduce poets and authors at events
  • Encourage budding poets

For instance, Wendy organized a flagship event called “Indie Author Day” at Anaheim’s main library branch for hundreds of attendees last year. She is on schedule to do this a second time this year.

Her duties include supporting the monthly Anaheim Open-Mic at our main library. “I was a regular at this open-mic before I assumed the role, so attending is no burden on me. It is run by a pair of librarians, but I pitch in to find speakers and greet our guests.”

She also regularly teaches poetry workshops at the various library branches in the city, and she is sometimes asked to speak at library functions. She appeared at “OC Zine Festival” last year and this year she is coming on board for “AnaCon”, a science fiction convention at the main branch.

Meanwhile, she is editor of “Anaheim Poetry Review” a small, annual, community poetry anthology featuring poetry of the local community. She is putting together a reading of the poets and is trying to get it televised. She is sponsoring a launch party for the anthology as her National Poetry Month event.

She also attends various civic councils as an invited guest, “…but I try and keep that to a minimum.” She says that most poets laureate have a busy schedule once they settle in, but that much of it is behind the scenes.

Being a poet laureate during the pandemic

Barbara Southard, former poet laureate of Suffolk County

Barbara Southard, former poet laureate of Suffolk County speaks at the birthplace of former UK poet laureate William Wordsworth

Barbara’s term as poet laureate was somewhat unique during pandemic lockdowns. While the position was suspended in Anaheim, the work she did in Suffolk County was “a lifeline to many in the community.”

Since there were no in-person readings or gatherings possible, she worked with members of the poetry community to create Zoom workshops for writers isolated in their homes.

She felt fortunate to have a very active community of poets. There was hardly a night you wouldn’t be able to find a reading. People were able to see each other, laugh and read their work to an audience over Zoom. These were so successful that they’ve continued to sponsor workshops like this for the poetry community.

One of the poets she still works with is the current poet laureate of the county.

“We are now back to seeing each other in person. Love of the written word, as well as performing in front of a supportive group of people, is the glue that holds us together.”

Wendy had a similar experience.

“My city is in the shadow of large corporations, namely Disneyland. Our locals had no focal point to gather together and express themselves as citizens of the community. My predecessor developed the Anaheim Open-Mic to give the poets, musicians, and writers a place to gather in the city. It was a bi-monthly program during his term, but in mine, it is now monthly and has quite a following.”

Juan Perez as poet laureate at a ceremony

Juan Perez with fellow Armed Forces Veteran, Robert Smoke-Eater Trevino at a Pow Wow in Alton, Texas, March 4, 2023. They are gourd dancing, a traditional activity of warriors, such as Indigenous veterans.

Juan sees the role in a similar way.

“Poet Laureates are encouragers of other poets no matter what age or level even other poet laureates like me. We rely on each other for submission & publishing advice, constructive criticism, and just plain helpful words to keep us going. We are also and often the same ones that help or individually start programs to develop and encourage new poets and literacy programs in schools and communities to further the love of poetry, often with little to no pay. So, it is usually a labor of love.”

Being a poet laureate is as much about organizing community events as it is about poetry!

For Barbara, that’s nothing new or unique.

“There’s really just a continuum of before, during and after. The only different aspect of being poet laureate is that you’re asked to be present for more readings, to judge more contests, to do more of what you’ve always been doing.”

It seems that most poets laureate work well together. Often, the work with the predecessors in the position. But they also work with poets laureate from nearby communities or even with those at a state, provincial or national level.

Does a poet laureate get paid?

Some poets laureate get paid, but that doesn’t make it a “job”. Perhaps the best-paid are the poets laureate to the King of the UK and to the government of the United States.

The UK King’s poet laureate an annual salary of £5,750, which the poet often donates to charity or to a poetry cause. The poet laureate also gets the traditional butt of sack, which is made up of around 720 bottles of sherry (for creative inspiration, perhaps?). We call it “traditional” because it began in 1630 with Ben Jonson. He wrote poetry for King James VI and I and King Charles I, but was never formally appointed to any poetry position.

The U.S. “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” receives a $35,000 annual stipend, plus $5,000 for travel expenses. It’s a nice little bonus – I wouldn’t mind such a stipend – but hardly a full-time salary. And it’s not even the government who pays it. The position is funded by an endowment from Archer M. Huntington.

What do local poets laureate get paid?

What about other poets laureates, local poets in smaller communities than the U.S. or UK governments?

I canvassed the poets you’ve read about above.

Yukon does not pay its poet laureate.

Suffolk County does not pay its poet laureate.

Corpus Christi does not pay its poet laureate.

“Some south Texas regional poets” don’t pay their poet laureate.

Notice a pattern?

The San Antonio Poets Association does not pay its poet laureate (although the City of San Antonio has since began naming poets laureate with a small $3,500 stipend).

Anaheim does not pay its poet laureate, but there is a small budget to develop poetic activities for the city.

So, if you have poet laureate ambitions, don’t give up your day poetry.

This does not mean the role is without rewards. Wendy has this to say:

“For me, the payment aspect comes from an increase in book sales, invitations to speak, and an increase in publishing of my work everywhere. But being a poet laureate is not about money or selling more books. It is about our community, making friends, and helping to uplift members of our community. I’m grateful the city convinced me to be their poet laureate. It is certainly worth the time I’ve put into the role and I’ve enjoyed performing my duties with the city. I admit, I’ll miss the job when my term closes.”

No doubt, Juan’s various poet laureate role gave him a platform also to promote his works. At time of writing, he was promoting his new poetry book, THIRTY YEARS AGO, and was gearing up for his next release.

“I am currently awaiting the release of a graphic novel based on my long experimental renga about an incident of ‘mystery meat’ in tamales (yeah, it’s got a ‘killer’ taste), as well as a poetry chapbook based on the theme of ‘Indigenous Futurism.'”

Who are the most famous poets laureate?

The position of poet laureate has a long history. The first recorded poet laureate was Simonides, who was appointed by the Greek tyrant Hipparchus in the fifth century BC. But that’s ancient history.

In somewhat more modern times, Albertino Mussato of Padua and Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) of Arezzo were the earliest known poets laureate since the classical age. They were appointed respectively in 1315 and 1342.

But English-speaking poet laureate history is generally considered to have begun in the 15th century, when Bernard André was appointed by Henry VII of England. The English position of poet laureate officially began when John Dryden was appointed in 1668.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Penn Warren

Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Penn Warren

The position has been held by some of the most famous poets in English literature, including John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ted Hughes.

Some well-known poets have also been appointed U.S. poet laureate, too. Robert Frost served the role in 1958-1959.

And Robert Penn Warren served twice, in 1944-1945 and then again in 1986-1987. Penn Warren is best known for writing All the King’s Men in 1946, a novel that earned him the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

We can’t leave out Amanda Gorman. In 2017, she became the first U.S. national youth poet laureate (not to be confused with the “young people’s poet laureate” mentioned above. Who could forget her captivating performance at President Joe Biden’s inauguration at age 22?

Amanda Gorman uses poetry and rhetoric for good

About David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, a published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

Read more about David Leonhardt

Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *