A couple days ago I talked about a conversation I had with a younger poet who did not know who Shane Koyczan was [check out that blog post here]. Which reminded me of a conversation I had at a youth writing workshop recently where the topic of a “Poet Laureate” came up. Most of the youth had blank faces when asked who and what one was, then one poet said “thats the old white dudes that read dull poems at big events right?”
After breaking it down for him we talked further about the place academic poetry has in slam and vice-verse. Every poet has a thought on page vs stage poetry, on academic vs slam. These conversations are getting more and more progressive, and the two worlds are getting closer and closer which in my opinion is a great thing. But no matter where you stand or what your position is, it is my belief that every poet should be educated about all the worlds of poetry. This is why we spent a large part of the workshop breaking it down, and in some ways slowing down the firestorm in all of their heads to simply listen and appreciate the beautiful language & images the poets were creating.
Although I know all of our readers know everything there is to know about this topic 🙂 – below is a brief crash course in poet laureate-ness!
So In ancient Greece, the laurel was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes. When a writer or a great warrior did something crazy big, they would get crowned with a Laurel. This custom, was followed by Petrarch’s own crowning ceremony in the audience hall of the medieval senatorial Palazzo. [side note I could talk about greek mythology all day long, if you ever see me and want to geek out about Icarus and nem I am down]
At the time there were a ton of Renaissance figures who were attempting to revive the Classical tradition but they did not have the detailed knowledge of the Roman precedent they were attempting to emulate, so these ceremonies took on the format of crowing doctoral candidatures. Pretty much if you were honoured with a Laurel you were the shit.
As the concept of the poet laureate has spread, the term “laureate” has come in English to signify recognition for preeminence or superlative achievement (cf. Nobel laureate). As a royal degree in rhetoric, poet laureate was awarded at European universities in the Middle Ages. The term might also refer to the holder of such a degree, which recognized skill in rhetoric, grammar and language.
The United States Library of Congress appointed a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1984. An Act of Congress changed the name in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A number of American states’ legislatures have created official government positions that are occupied by Poets Laureate who are prominent either locally, nationally, or sometimes both.
Laureates receive a US$35,000 stipend and are given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a charge to promote poetry. No other duties are specified, and laureates are not required to compose for government events or in praise of government officials. However, after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the then Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, was asked to write a poem to be read in front of a special joint session of Congress. Collins wrote “The Names” which he read on September 6, 2002, which is available in streaming audio and video. When the $35,000 stipend was instituted, the amount was quite large and was intended to allow the poet laureate to abandon worries about earning a living and devote his or her time entirely to writing poetry. That amount has remained the same, so the intent of making it a nice living for a poet is no longer being fulfilled. Now it functions as a bonus for a poet who usually is teaching at a university and earns the bulk of his or her living that way.
Check out the interview below with Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as she breaks down what being the Poet Laureate means to her and also reads one of her poems “Elegy for my father”