Was Maya Angelou a Poet Laureate? Yes and No.

Maya Angelou, full length portrait, facing front, dressed for her part in the Caribbean Calypso Festival

Maya Angelou, full length portrait, facing front, dressed for her part in the Caribbean Calypso Festival, 1957. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96521450/

The death of American poet, writer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has been widely covered by mainstream media, and thousands of heartfelt tributes and expressions of sorrow from admirers worldwide continue to pour in through social media. While all aspects of Angelou’s varied career have been the subject of recent discussion—including her early performances of Calypso music (see image at right)—one of the most remarkable aspects of the response to her passing has been how frequently people refer to Angelou as Poet Laureate. A quick search of recent Google results and Twitter postings records thousands of instances in which she’s dubbed “America’s Poet Laureate,” “United States Poet Laureate,” “Poet Laureate Emeritus,” “former U.S. Poet Laureate,” and other laureate-related appellations.

In fact, Maya Angelou never served in the official position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  Occupants of this position are more commonly known simply by the title U.S. Poet Laureate. Nineteen poets have previously served as U.S. Poet Laureate—the most recent, Natasha Trethewey, concluded her term earlier this month.

Part of the confusion surrounding whether Maya Angelou was ever Poet Laureate likely stems from her performance at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration, during which she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning.” Angelou is one of five poets to have read or recited poems at presidential inaugurations, and people tend to conflate, I’ve found, the role of Inaugural Poet with the official position of U.S. Poet Laureate.

While Maya Angelou was never an official U.S. Poet Laureate, this doesn’t mean she wasn’t a Poet Laureate. The term “Poet Laureate” can be applied unofficially to anyone, and frequently is bestowed upon poets by the general public due to their immense popularity or their contributions to the world of poetry and literature. By either criterion, Maya Angelou was certainly an American Poet Laureate.

6 Comments

  1. Doris Walker
    May 29, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Why in the World would you give the award after she died? Of course she was a Poet Laureate. What a slap in the face. To dedicate your life to a cause, profession, and or career and not to receive the full recognition of that particular sector.

    • Peter Armenti
      May 30, 2014 at 8:01 am

      Dear Doris,

      As I mentioned in the post, only nineteen poets have served officially as U.S. Poet Laureate since the position was created in 1985. This unfortunately means that there are many worthy poets who have not been appointed to the position. The selection of the U.S. Poet Laureate is made by the Librarian of Congress. You can read more about the selection of official U.S. Poets Laureate in the blog post “How is the Poet Laureate Selected?

  2. Dolores
    May 29, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    I have not read many of her books, but I do recall receiving a Maya Angelou book from my Grandmother. What I have read her poetry as well as seen her artistic form in her writings. I would suggest to some of those who are not familiar with Maya Angelo, to stop by a local library or book store. I myself can assure you that you will be most pleased and strangely what you might read just might fit right in with your own time and day.

  3. Lola Boutte
    June 5, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    I am proud to have been among the poets, who read and loves Maya Angelou’s Peoms. She gives me courage to write my own poems. Helen S. Rice is a great poet also. It’s great to be around the times of such Grest Poets. How do you become a Poet Laurete?

  4. LISA HOWARD
    September 29, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Maya was the best Poet and Writer

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