The world of poetry seldom make headlines, but recent developments related to the naming of North Carolina’s Poet Laureate have made poetry front-page news. In letters to the editor in The Charlotte Observer and other newspapers, a number of people have responded to this news by questioning why the State of North Carolina even bothers to have a poet laureate.
As chair of the English Department at UNC Charlotte, I thought it timely to consider the history and the purpose of the position.
The idea of naming a poet laureate did not originate in North Carolina. The title can be traced back to mediaeval England when monarchs appointed a poet to the role versificator regis. After being renamed several times, the current title of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom came into use around 1800.
The title of Poet Laureate of the United States can be traced back to 1937 with the appointment of first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Now generally called the Poet Laureate, this position has been held by some of America’s most famous poets. There has long been an expectation that the Poet Laureate should make an effort to promote the reading and writing of poetry.
About ten years after the Library of Congress named its first Poet Laureate, the North Carolina General Assembly created the office of “poet-laureate for North Carolina.” In 1948, Arthur Talmage Abernethy became the first poet to hold this title. As originally envisioned, a key responsibility of this position is to serve as an “ambassador of North Carolina literature.”
So why do we need an ambassador of North Carolina literature?
Writers, be they poets or authors of prose, need readers. Without readers, literature is just words on a page. But when readers delve into a work of literature, it is transformed into a form of communication. It becomes a shared aesthetic experience.
Perhaps more so than other writers, poets help readers appreciate the power of language. Poets draw pictures with words. Poets provide us with the words to express deep emotions. The best poets use words to cast magic spells – spells that help their readers gain a deeper understanding of the human condition with all its complexities and contradictions.
By serving as an ambassador for North Carolina literature, the North Carolina Poet Laureate is in a unique position to bring writers and readers together. By promoting North Carolina literature, our Poet Laureate can help us discover new poets, new literary works, and perhaps most importantly, new insights into ourselves and others – insights that come from looking at ourselves through the eyes of a poet.