Monday, April 25, 2011

What is a Poet Laureate?

Each year, when National Poetry Month arrives, we see news about the Poets Laureate of California and San Francisco. The appointing of a laureate is a tradition that many people have heard of, but perhaps you're interested in how it all started?

The concept of a Poet Laureate originated in England in the 1600s. The laureate description refers to the ancient Greek tradition of placing a laurel wreath or crown as recognition for significant achievements, from military accomplishments to literary triumphs.

Early lawmakers in California recognized the importance of a statewide Poet Laureate at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ina Donna Coolbrith was appointed the first honorary California Poet Laureate by Governor Hiram Johnson in 1915 and served until her death in 1928.

The position was an honorary lifetime appointment until 2001, when it was made into an official government appointment. The California Arts Council is designated to recommend individuals to the Governor for the position, the governor chooses the Poet Laureate, and Senate approves the appointment. The state Poet Laureate serves a two-year term and is limited to two terms. Quincy T. Troupe was appointed California's first official Poet Laureate in 2002. The current appointee is Carol Muskie Dukes who will serve until 2012. Many California poets have received notable honors including such awards as the Nobel Prize, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. A few have served as United States' Poet Laureate, like Robert Haas, a San Francisco native. Which leads us now, of course, to the Poet Laureate of San Francisco...

The San Francisco program was initiated by former Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown. He was on a visit to Seoul, Korea, when he gave the surprise announcement that he would like San Francisco to have a poet laureate. He stated: "More than any historical facts or empirical data, literature is where we truly gain an understanding of other human beings."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was San Francisco’s first Poet Laureate (1998-2000). He was chosen by a committee including notable authors, teachers, a representive from the Mayor's office and the City Librarian. Many think of Ferlinghetti as one of the fathers of modern poetry in the city. During his tenure he wrote a newspaper column, Poetry as News, in the San Francisco Chronicle. As publisher of City Lights Books he initiated a series of commemorative books of poems by successive SF Poets Laureate including Janice Mirikitani, devorah major, and Jack Hirschman.

The current Poet Laureate of San Francisco, Diane di Prima, was appointed in 2009, by former Mayor Gavin Newsom and City Librarian Luis Herrera. Ms. Di Prima has done a variety of programs with city youth and the public library. Her book, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years: a Memoir, was the Jan. 2010 selection of San Francisco's Bi-monthly Book Club On the Same Page. Her works (and the efforts of all the city's laureates) embody the spirit that Mayor Brown was envisioning -- they aim to "broaden the world's appreciation of literature and its crucial function in society."

Historical information located at the California Arts Council website: California Poet Laureate

"Brown Wants Poet Laureate For S.F.'s Soul / Surprise announcement at University of Seoul," October 25, 1997By Edward Epstein, Chronicle Staff Writer

Press release: "Mayor Newsom Names Diane Di Prima as 5th Poet Laureate."

Check the SFPL calendar for poetry events year 'round:

The Friends of the San Franciso Public Library hosts a weekly series at the Readers Cafe:

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