England’s office of poet laureate has a rich and lengthy history, a history that can be obscure at times, but that dates back solidly to 1668, when John Dryden held the position under Charles II.
Appointed by the reigning monarch, poets laureate wrote poems for government functions, and notable poets laureate include literary masters from William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Ted Hughes.
Here in the United States, the Librarian of Congress began appointing “consultants” in poetry beginning in 1937, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the name poet laureate was actually used. Whereas English poets laureate hold the position for life, poets laureate in the United States typically hold the position for a year.
Many states, and even cities, have their own poets laureate as well. In 2005, Jonathan Holden was appointed as Kansas’ first poet aureate, and Denise (Dotson) Low ’84 will step in to become the second this summer.
Low is honored to have been selected for the unique position. As she muses on her blog, “Despite electronic communications and commercializations, this quaint post still exists and indeed flourishes. I wish there could be a laureate for each occupation. This uniqueness underscores how essential poetry is to the human spirit.”
After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Kansas, Low received her master of fine arts degree, emphasis in poetry, at Wichita State in 1984. Since then, she’s become a widely published poet, essayist and editor. Her New and Collected Poems, 1980-1999 was published by Penthe Press, and her collection Thailand Journal was selected as a notable book of 2003 by the Kansas City Star.
More recently, she has served as editor for Wakarusa Wetlands in Word & Image for the Lawrence Arts Center’s Imagination & Place Committee, and in 2006 Ice Cube Press published her highly praised collection of essays, Words of a Prairie Alchemist. She and her husband, Thomas Pecore Weso, coauthored Langston Hughes: Photographs and Biographical Resources.
As if her own projects didn’t keep her busy enough, Low is chair of the English department at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, where she also teaches creative writing and American Indian Studies courses, and she is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle of The Land Institute.
Low is a fifth-generation Kansan, and her heritage is diverse, made up of German, Scottish, Lenape (Delaware), English, French and Cherokee ancestry. Her sense of place and deep respect for this heritage is almost sacred. (For instance, note her lines from “Kene: Bald Eagle.”) “I think there is an interesting interplay with place and personal identity,” she says. “My years in the Flint Hills taught me about the play of light on rock, grass, water and soil. All of these appear in my work without conscious effort. I write more easily about these elements than about people.”
While she has read poetry since she was a teenager, Low relates that “these days I read Mary Oliver and William Stafford. I like Albert Goldbarth’s work a great deal. And of course, I read Jonathan Holden’s work as well.”
Low, who was nominated for the honor of poet laureate by the author Thomas Fox Averill, writer-in-residence and English professor at Washburn University, will be inaugurated June 30. After that, Kansas Poet Laureate Low will conduct personal appearances and “shoptalk sessions” and maintain the kansaspoets.com website. She also hopes to work with Washburn’s Center for Kansas Studies on a multimedia project resulting in an anthology of Kansas poets.
“Poetry sustains our spirits and holds our communities together,” she notes. “It celebrates the land, our loves, and it mourns our losses. Words create our ability to survive.
“We are all made of breath and flesh. Poetry binds these together.”