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 has sometimes been awarded on grounds not restricted to fame or literary eminence.
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 2018, forty-three states and the District of Columbia claimed a poet laureate, three states had the position vacant, and five states had no position. 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 Yarbrough 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 was 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 published 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 had long been active in literary organizations, including Ozark Creative Writers, the Poets Roundtable of Arkansas, Arkansas Pen Women, and the Arkansas Songwriters Association. She 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.
Following Vining’s death, Governor Asa Hutchinson appointed Jo McDougall to the position of poet laureate. McDougall had grown up in the Arkansas Delta, and her poetry reflects the hardships and beauty of rural life. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, and she received the Porter Prize for her body of work in 2000. Towns Facing Railroads, a stage presentation adapted from McDougall’s work, premiered at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in 2006. In 2015, the University of Arkansas Press published a compilation of McDougall’s poetry, In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems. McDougall’s style has been praised for its concision and focus on quiet moments of daily living. In fact, McDougall developed one pattern that has become recognized as “the McDougall Moment,” a structure in which a poignant scene is rendered in three short, unrhymed stanzas.
Act 292 of 2017 amended how poets laureate are chosen and their length of service. Now, the governor selects the poet laureate from a list of potential candidates compiled by two “principal heads of English departments of state-supported universities or colleges who are selected by the Director of the Department of Higher Education,” as well as two members of the Poets Roundtable of Arkansas designated by the group’s president. In addition, the term of service of the poet laureate was limited to four years.
On February 1, 2022, Gov. Hutcinson named Fayetteville resident Suzanne Underwood Rhodes the new poet laureate. This marked the first time a governor had named two poets laureate. Rhodes is a native of New York educated at James Madison University and Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the following chapbooks and collections: Weather of the House (1994), What a Light Thing, This Stone (1995), Sketches of Home (1998), The Roar on the Other Side (2000), A Welcome Shore (2010), Hungry Foxes (2013), Flying Yellow (2021).
For additional information:
“Arkansas—State Poet Laureate.” Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/rr/main/poets/arkansas.html (accessed February 10, 2022).
Bailey, Susan L. “Poet Laureate of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (Spring 1990): 51–56.
Clancy, Sean. “New Poet Laureate in until 2026.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 20, 2022, p. 1B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/feb/20/opinionpaper-trails-fayetteville-woman-states-new/ (accessed February 21, 2022).
Poets Laureate. Vertical File. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Ethel C. Simpson
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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