Pennsylvania could restore top position for poets

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania is one of the few states without a poet laureate.

However, if the General Assembly takes action, such a development could occur again in the Commonwealth.

Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman of Easton has proposed House Bill 2308 to appoint a Pennsylvania Poet Laureate to perform official readings at the governor's inauguration and the opening of the legislative session and to assist at other official commemorations.

In the 1990s, then-Governor Bob Casey appointed Sam Hazo as Poet Laureate, but Governor Ed Rendell removed him from the position when he took office in 2003. It was important to revive the position, Freeman argued, because a laureate could “draw on the rich heritage that we have, the rich cultural and artistic community that we have here in Pennsylvania.”

“Poetry is a written art form that can inspire people, can be very helpful and is a symbol of our cultural and artistic background,” he said.

Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Carolina are the only other states that do not have a poet laureate. New Jersey had one for a short time, but eliminated the position in less than four years after poet laureate Amiri Baraka sparked controversy with an anti-Semitic poem.

“The arts play a very important role in our culture, they define us,” said Freeman. “They give us the opportunity to be inspired by beauty and beautiful thoughts. They can also be inspiring from a social perspective.”

Cultural initiatives, he argued, could boost tourism and increase interest from outside the city, be it through a concert, a local festival or other reasons.

Pennsylvania would be doing it cheaply by creating the position of poet laureate. A poet would not receive a salary but would be reimbursed for “necessary travel and other expenses incurred in the performance of his official duties,” according to Freeman's bill.

New York pays its awardee a stipend of $10,000, Ohio $5,000, West Virginia $2,000. Maryland excludes compensation for its awardee but reimburses up to $1,000 annually for expenses. Delaware awards the award on a pro bono basis and no compensation is provided for in state law.

Although there is no official position, the state has a de facto laureate in Philadelphia's Poet Laureate. The city gives a poet a $5,000 stipend, and its incumbent routinely receives a $50,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets Laureate. These grants often go to big-city writers and Poet Laureates, and Philadelphia's Poet Laureate received one in 2019, 2021, and 2022.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Poet Laureate programs have been established in Allegheny, Blair, Bucks, and Erie counties, as well as in Milford Township, Lancaster, and York (although the Allegheny program is a program of the City of Asylum, a nonprofit organization).

Freeman also introduced HR376 to declare April 2024 as National Poetry Month in Pennsylvania, which passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 196-4.

He thanked his constituent Helen Behe, who holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing from DeSales University, for her suggestion to reinstate the position of Poet Laureate in Pennsylvania.

LOOK: Books set in Pennsylvania

Stacker has compiled a list of books from Goodreads that are set in Pennsylvania.

Gallery Credits: Stacker

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Anna Harden

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