State Poets Laureate: Widely Instated

Fomer U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Billy Collins has served as both U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-03) and New York State Poet (2004-06).

In a recent post I discussed the history of the U.S. poet laureateship. What I didn’t mention, however, is that the job title “Poet Laureate” isn’t restricted to this national position: many U.S. states, counties, cities, and other jurisdictions have created analogous Poet Laureate positions at the local level. In fact, more than twenty years before the position of Consultant in Poetry was established, California became the first state to select its own Poet Laureate, Ina Coolbrith. At the time of this writing, forty states have an official position of State Poet Laureate, while two states, Alaska and Idaho, have a position for “State Writer Laureate” and “Writer-in-Residence,” respectively. The position of State Poet Laureate or State Writer is occupied in thirty-eight of these forty-two states.

Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair at the 2011 National Book Festival.

Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair at the 2011 National Book Festival. Photo by Charlynn Pyne.

While the specifics of each state’s poet laureateship—term length, stipend, and responsibilities—differ, the overarching goal of each position is usually to increase the visibility and appreciation of poetry among the public. The Library of Congress has supported the activities of State Poets Laureate by organizing State Poet readings both on-site and at the National Book Festival. At the 2011 Book Festival, for instance, a State Poets Laureate mini-pavilion featured readings by four state poets—Wesley McNair (Maine), Kelly Cherry (Virginia), Stanley Plumly (Maryland), and Carol Muske-Dukes (California)—and Dolores Kendrick, the Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C.

Since detailed information about State Poets isn’t aggregated elsewhere, the Library of Congress has created a guide to State Poets Laureate that includes a list of current State Poets, historical information about each state’s Poet Laureate program, and frequently asked questions about the history of State Poets Laureate.

From the Catbird Seat plans to regularly update its readers on changes in State Poet Laureate positions. Most recently, the position of West Virginia Poet Laureate became vacant due to the February 4th passing of Irene McKinney, who served as the state’s laureate for 18 years.

Congratulations to Rita Dove

The following is a guest post by Bryan Koen, graduate research assistant for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. The Poetry and Literature Center congratulates former Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Rita Dove, to whom President Obama awarded the National Medal of Arts on Monday, February 13. At the White House […]

George Washington: Love Poet

From the Catbird Seat decided to combine our celebrations of Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day—not an easy thing to do!—by highlighting the youthful poetic efforts of George Washington. Yes, well before Washington was Commander in Chief of the Continental Army or President of the United States, he was just another teenage boy who turned to […]

What Do Poets Laureate Do?

Philip Levine reads his poetry at the Library of Congress, October 17, 2011

Philip Levine, whose poetry has honored the working man for almost half a century, gave his inaugural reading as the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress on Oct. 17.

On August 10, 2011, Philip Levine was appointed the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. As the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Levine now occupies one of the best known literary positions in the country. Yet despite its high public profile, there are many aspects of the laureateship that remain unclear, or downright mystifying, to the public.

One bit of confusion is the widespread belief that the laureateship is funded with taxpayers’ money. In fact, the position is maintained through a privately funded endowment made to the Library in 1936 by the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. Another uncertainty surrounds the official title of the Poet Laureate. From 1937 to 1985, the title was “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”; in 1985, an act of Congress changed the title to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” The greatest confusion, however, centers on a more fundamental question about the nature of the position:

What, exactly, does a Poet Laureate do? Read more »

Remembering Langston Hughes

The following is a guest post by Caitlin Rizzo, staffer for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. Last Wednesday marked what would have been the 110th birthday of beloved American poet Langston Hughes. In celebration of this milestone, the Manuscript Division and the Poetry and Literature Center co-hosted a Literary Birthday […]