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. //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.

The PLC Launches “Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic Writers”

The following is a guest post by Catalina Gómez, program coordinator in the Library of Congress Hispanic Division. As the program coordinator of the Library of Congress Hispanic Division, it’s my pleasure to announce the launch of an exciting online feature: “Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic Writers,”  presenting interviews with contemporary American poets and prose writers […]

The Post-Final Grand Finale

Please forgive me—I couldn’t help that title! And I’m going to do a little bit of jumping around in this post. First, I want to let you know that tonight the final segment of “Where Poetry Lives” is airing on the PBS NewsHour. This segment brought our Laureate to Los Angeles, where she learned more […]

Tonight’s the Night!

It’s hard to believe that tonight Natasha Trethewey will conclude her laureateship. Just to remind you, here are the details: Wednesday, May 14, 7:00 PM POET LAUREATE FINAL LECTURE Natasha Trethewey will deliver her final lecture to conclude her second term as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry and the spring literary season at the Library […]

Join us online for “Civil War Soul Sisters”

The following is a guest post by Lavonda Kay Broadnax, a research specialist in the Library of Congress’s Digital Reference Section. The sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War  is a wonderful time to celebrate and promote the literature written by African American women who lived during the Civil War. To help researchers explore the legacy […]