What Is a Poet Laureate?
If you're like my own children, you may be wondering, as they did, what is a poet laureate and what does he or she do? To answer both questions, some background information is necessary. In the beginning, medieval universities were fond of crowning with laurel any student admitted to an academic degree. Those students showing particular skill in Latin and in forms of versification were awarded the special degree "poet laureate." Gradually, that title attained a more precise application. By the late Middle Ages, the custom developed to bestow a crown of laurels to poets showing distinctive achievement, Petrarch receiving such an honor in 1341. In fact, the root word "laurel" is still visible in the phrase "poet laureate." At the same time, many ancient kings established the practice of maintaining a poet within their realms to poeticize familial and military accomplishments.
The modern office of the laureate was established in seventeenth-century England. Then, the laureate's primary duty was to sing the praises of royalty and to celebrate their state occasions, to be, as it were, a court poet. Thankfully, that role was abolished in the early 1800s. In America, our state and national laureates have been asked to devise their own programs for promoting the art of poetry among the populace. Most recently in Illinois, Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks encouraged, sustained, and rewarded poetry writing among Illinois residents young and old, particularly among the African-American community.
For my part, I hope to undertake projects that will make poetry more available and more accessible to people in their everyday lives. This website represents my first program to do just that. My notion here is similar to that of poet Marianne Moore, who remarked that reading poetry, even "with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine." An ambassador for poetry, the Laureate promotes citizens' awareness of poetry as well as heightens their appreciation of the art form. In sum, the Laureate strives to forge a meaningful communion between poetry and the state's populace.