What, you may ask, is a poet laureate? A poet laureate is an official poet appointed by a government to promote poetry. Britain's first semi-official Poet Laureate was Ben Johnson, appointed by King James I in 1617. Since 1937, the United States Library of Congress has appointed a Consultant in Poetry, also called a Poet Laureate. But it's not just nations doing the appointing. Many states and cities also designate poets laureate.
From Alabama to Wyoming, the Library of Congress lists the Poets Laureate of each state, including a notation for those states where the position is vacant or doesn't exist. Click on any of the state links to learn more about the current honoree, and a short history of the position in that state. California, for example, established an unofficial Poet Laureate in 1915 with the appointment of Donna Coolbirth. In 2001, the position became official, with poets serving two-year terms. California's current poet, Carol Muske-Dukes, was appointed in 2008.
Here you will find brief bios of all our American Poet Laureates, starting in 1937 with Joseph Auslander. "Auslander, who was born in Philadelphia and graduated Harvard College, was appointed in 1937 as the first Consultant in Poetry without a definite term and served four years. He was noted for his war poems, and his best-known work is 'The Unconquerables' (1943), a collection of poems addressed to the German-occupied countries of Europe."
This section of the Library of Congress site is still under construction, but online guides already exist for US Poets Laureate going back to 1984. Earlier years are still being filled in. Each poet's page includes links to biographical info on the Library of Congress sites, as well as links to external pages about the poet and his work. In the right-hand column, you'll find links to more Poetry Guides, such as Presidents as Poets and Official State Poems. "While forty-two U.S. states have an official poet laureate or state writer, only five states ? Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee ? have an official state poem."
Carol Ann Duffy is Britain's current Poet Laureate, appointed in 2009. In addition to a short bio, you'll find half a dozen of her poems here, in both audio and written format. If you click on the "read" button, next to the audio icons in the left-hand column, you'll be transported to a page where you can both read the poem and listen to Duffy's recitation. "Poetry and prayer are very similar," she explains. "I write quite a lot of sonnets and I think of them almost as prayers: short and memorable, something you can recite."
The current U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, is a practicing Buddhist living in Hawaii. One recurring theme of his work is man's separate from nature. Jay Parini, writing in the Guardian, explains, "The poet [Merwin] sees the consequences of that alienation as disastrous, both for the human race and for the rest of the world." When asked what social role a poet plays in America, Merwin replied, "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time."