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Poets Laureate of Arkansas

The position of Poet Laureate of Arkansas was established on October 10, 1923, by concurrent resolutions of both houses of the General Assembly. In Arkansas, as elsewhere, the title of poet laureate is generally awarded on grounds not restricted to fame or literary eminence. None of the best-known or most distinguished Arkansas poets has received the title.

The term “laureate” refers to the ancient custom of crowning a person with a wreath made from leaves of the laurel tree. In antiquity, military heroes, athletic champions, and winners in singing, music, and poetry contests typically received this honor. In modern times, monarchs, governing bodies, or other organizations have named poets laureate, often in recognition of a significant talent but sometimes for political or other reasons. John Dryden was the first poet laureate of England (1670–1688). The United States Library of Congress appointed Joseph Auslander Consultant in Poetry in 1937 and later adopted the title of Poet Laureate, with a term of one year. The first state poet laureate, Ina Coolbrith of California, was appointed by proclamation of the governor on April 21, 1915, and the California legislature approved this proclamation on April 26, 1919. In 2006, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia claimed a poet laureate, while two states have “writer laureate” positions. Poets laureate are generally expected to promote a greater appreciation of poetry.

Charles T. Davis was the first to occupy the position of poet laureate, which he held until his death on December 21, 1945. Davis was on the editorial staff of the Arkansas Gazette for most of his career, with brief intervals at newspapers elsewhere. His poems were published in the Gazette and collected in two volumes, Poems (1923) and Riders in the Sun (1927). The position was vacant from 1946 until 1953, when Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni was appointed on March 28. A Fayetteville (Washington County) resident, a prolific poet, and a tireless promoter of poetry, Marinoni was instrumental in the proclamation of Arkansas Poetry Day in 1948.

Upon Marinoni’s death in 1970, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller named Ercil Brown interim laureate, because the legislature, which controlled the appointment, was not in session. When the legislature convened, three candidates for the post had emerged: Anna Nash Yarborough of Benton (Saline County), Lily Peter of Marvell (Phillips County), and Brown. The legislature declined to decide on the appointment and instead, in 1971, passed Act 90, which assigned the responsibility to the governor. According to Act 90, “The person designated or appointed by the Governor as Poet Laureate of the State of Arkansas shall be a person whose name was selected from a list of names submitted to the Governor upon recommendation of a committee consisting of the principal heads of the English departments of all state-supported universities and colleges.” Governor Dale Bumpers announced Lily Peter’s appointment on October 6, 1971. Peter, a farmer from Phillips County, was a renowned patron of the arts and an advocate for the environment. She wrote lyrical and historical poetry, including a book-length poem about the Hernando de Soto expedition in the United States.

Following Peter’s death, Verna Lee Hinegardner was appointed by Governor Bill Clinton on October 4, 1991, serving until 2003. She created a poetry form known as the minute, consisting of sixty syllables in rhyming couplets. Hinegardner has been active in the Arkansas branch of Pen Women, the Poetry Society of America, and many other organizations promoting poetry, and she chaired two conventions of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. One of her books was part of the Ozark Sunlight Series, which includes some of Marinoni’s titles. She has published (through 2006) twelve books of verse, from Magic Moments (1966) through I Own One Star (Pine Hill Press, 2005).

In 2003, Governor Mike Huckabee appointed Peggy Vining of Little Rock (Pulaski County) to the position. Before this time, the poet laureateship had been considered a life appointment. A small storm of publicity resulted, but in the end, the appointment stood. Vining has long been active in literary organizations, including Ozark Creative Writers, the Poets Roundtable, Arkansas Pen Women, and the Arkansas Songwriters Association. She has also served as an area coordinator for American Mothers, Inc., an interfaith, non-political organization. Vining edited Bible-Based Poetry, published by the Adams Press, for the Poets’ Roundtable of Arkansas in 1979. Her first volume of poems was set for publication in 2006.

For additional information:
“Arkansas—State Poet Laureate.” Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/rr/main/poets/arkansas.html (accessed June 24, 2006).

Bailey, Susan L. “Poet Laureate of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (Spring 1990): 51–56.

Poets Laureate. Vertical File. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Southern Poet Laureates 2005. http://www.southernscribe.com/zine/poetry/poet_laureates_2005.htm (accessed May 27, 2006).

Ethel C. Simpson
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Related Butler Center Lesson Plans:
Arkansas Poetry Connection (Grades 7-12)

Last Updated 1/17/2009

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