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What is a Poet Laureate? Why is the Role Important?

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo, June 6, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller.

In June, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden named Joy Harjo the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. On September 19, the date of her inaugural reading, Harjo will be officially installed in this role. This yearly (and sometimes biennial) event offers you the opportunity to begin discussing the significance of poetry with your students at the beginning of the school year.

Before sharing with students the history of the honor as well as the duties and responsibilities of the laureate, ask them to brainstorm a list of what they think a poet laureate does. Compare their ideas with the details provided in the history to see how close they came. You may wish to discuss with them some of the projects previous Poets Laureate have led during their terms. Examples include Billy Collins’s Poetry 180 and Natasha Trethewey’s Where Poetry Lives.

Engage students by asking why the Library of Congress has chosen “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry” by appointing a national Poet Laureate.

Extend the experience by asking students to investigate the ways in which other nations celebrate and raise consciousness, such as the Poet’s Corner in England’s Westminster Abbey.


  • Do other nations have a poet laureate or equivalent position?
  • Do states or cities have a laureate?

Introducing the new poet laureate to your students is one way to start year-long discussions of poetry and the role it plays for individuals, classes, and nations.

How do you first bring poetry into your classroom or library?


  1. I like to think I was blessed with a poetic sensibility. In a creative writing class I took in college my teacher wrote in my portfolio that he “enjoyed my presence… and the mature insight of [my] writing. [He was] particularly touched, too, by [my] Native American heritage and [my] pride in [my] roots; [I] have made [him] proud for [me] and for the unconquerable spirit of the Native American.”
    He went on to write that my imagery was a great strength and I needed to work on meter and not contort my sentences awkwardly to meet the requirements of rhyme. He definitely raised my consciousness to a higher level of expressionism. I thank him for that. In that respect I’d like to pay tribute to Joy Harjo for being named Poet Laureate. It makes me proud to know that a Native American has ascended to an honorable and worthy role that will only inspire hopeful poets like myself.

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