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.