Ten talented writers have served as Alabama's poet laureate since the early 1930s. Nominated by the Alabama Writers' Conclave (AWC) and commissioned by the governor, the poet laureate of Alabama plays a prominent public role, making appearances at schools, libraries, colleges and universities, and other state institutions. The role traditionally involves reading poems and offering lectures and workshops on poetry to audiences ranging from circles of school children, to gala events with hundreds of guests, to media broadcasts that reach thousands of people. It is a role that has changed with the times and with technology, but at least one constant has remained: Alabama's poet laureate serves as the public face of poetry for many in the state. During the past few decades, poetry's place in society has been hotly debated in and out of academic circles, and the place of an office such as poet laureate has been similarly scrutinized on state and national levels.
Following a tradition dating back to ancient Greece and formally established in Britain during the seventeenth century, Alabama established its own poet laureate by an act of the 1931 state legislature, an unpaid position from the start closely associated with the Alabama Writers Conclave. The poet laureate historically served a monarch, writing poems to mark significant moments in the lives of the royal family and other prominent citizens or in the life of the nation. For instance, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," perhaps the best-known poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (British poet laureate from 1850 until 1892), commemorates the valor of British cavalry during a battle in the Crimean War. The U.S. Poet Laureate, known until recently as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, has often sought to increase the profile of poetry as a public art form. For example, Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000, created the "Favorite Poem Project," which celebrates the place of poetry in American life through various activities and publications.
Alabama's poets laureate have varied in terms of their style, manner of public service, and length of term, but all have been
commissioned by the governor upon nomination by the AWC. Established in 1923, the organization is the oldest continuously
operating writers' collective in the nation. Its members include fiction and non-fiction writers, poets, science and business
writers, freelance journalists, publishers, philanthropists, and teachers from Alabama or with some connection to the state.
The AWC-established guidelines for Alabama poet laureate require state residence of at least 15 years for all nominees and,
after 1983, a term limit of four years.
The Poets Laureate
Samuel Minturn Peck (1854–1938), Alabama's first poet laureate, assumed the office on June 12, 1930, but was not confirmed by the legislature until March 5, 1931. He served until his death in 1938. A native of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, Peck authored a number of poetry collections, including The Autumn Trail; Maybloom and Myrtle; Alabama Sketches; The Golf Girl; Fair Women of Today; Rhymes and Roses; Rings and Love Knots; and Cap and Bells.
Mary B. Ward (1917– ), a native of Selma, Dallas County, has been a prolific writer. She published variously under the pen names Linn Latham, Amy Atchison, and Jack Ordway, among others, and was editor of the literary magazine Gammadion, a contributing editor for Yankee Humor and Poetry Forum, and a features writer for The Birmingham News. Ward was a president of the Alabama Writers' Conclave and an early proponent of establishing the position of poet laureate. She served as poet laureate from 1954 to 1958.
Elbert Calvin Henderson (1903–1974) authored several poetry collections, including The Ultimate Harvest; The Immortal Legions; Eternal Symphony; Blame Noah; Bright Armor; and House of Paradoxes. He was born in Glenwood, Crenshaw County, and served as poet laureate from 1959 until his death in 1974.
William Young Elliott (1902–1997) is a native of Leeds, Jefferson County. His published collections include Skylights 1, 2, and 3; Wings; Voices; Sisu and His Children; and Lizzie, Love Letters of a Young Confederate Soldier. Elliot served as poet laureate from 1975 to 1982. Elliott died October 22, 1997, in Huntsville.
Carl Patrick Morton (1920–1994) was born in Leeds, Jefferson County. He headed a number of state and national literary organizations,
including the Alabama Writers' Conclave and the Alabama State Poetry Society, and authored Desiring Stone and An Occasional Ty ger, and co-authored Scrod I. He served as poet laureate from 1983 to 1987.
Morton Dennison Prouty Jr. (1918–1991) was a president of the Alabama State Poetry Society and served as editor of its annual journal, The Sampler. He published a number of poetry collections, including The Edge of Time; The Heavens are Telling; To a Young Mariner; The Pharisee; Footsteps on the Mountain; and Sparks on the Wind. Though born in Illinois, Prouty spent most of his adult life in Florence, Lauderdale County. He served as poet laureate from 1988 to 1991.
Ralph Hammond (1916–2010) was a widely-respected author and editor and served as Gov. James E. Folsom Sr.'s press secretary and as the state's publicity director in addition to being mayor of Arab, Alabama. He was president of both the Alabama State Poetry Society and the Alabama Writers' Conclave and of the National Federation of Poetry Societies. Hammond published more than a dozen volumes, including Crossing Many Rivers; Upper Alabama Poems Out of Light; Blossoms; and Alabama Poets: A Contemporary Anthology. He was born in Big Wills Valley, Etowah County, and served as poet laureate from 1992 to 1995.
Helen Friedman Blackshear (1911–2003), a Tuscaloosa native, worked with a number of state and local literary organizations, including the Alabama Writers' Conclave and the Alabama State Poetry Society, and published widely in several genres, including the poetry collections And Time Remembered, Selections and Earthbound. She taught secondary-school English in Montgomery, Montgomery County, for 35 years. Blackshear served as poet laureate from 1995 to 1999.
Helen Norris (1916–2013) was from Montgomery, Montgomery County. She authored of four novels, four short story collections, and two poetry books and was the recipient of four O. Henry Awards, a Pushcart Prize, and two Andrew Lytle Awards, among many other honors. Two of her works, Cracker Man and The Christmas Wife, have been made into films for television. She taught at Huntingdon College in Montgomery for more than a decade before committing full-time to writing. Norris served as poet laureate from 1999 to 2003.
Sue Brannan Walker (ca. 1940–) is the editor and publisher of Negative Capability. A highly regarded teacher and literary scholar, Walker is the author of five poetry collections, including Blood Will Bear Your Name, which received a Pulitzer Prize nomination. She is a faculty member at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, Mobile County, where she has served as chair of the department of English and has published in a variety of fields of literary scholarship. Her second term as poet laureate will end in 2012.
Andrew Glaze (1920– ) was raised in Birmingham and worked as a journalist for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He has written eight books of poetry that largely center on the human condition, and his collection Damned Ugly Children was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1966. Many of his best poems draw on his early life in Alabama. Glaze will begin his
term in 2013.
Blackshear, Helen F., ed. These I Would Keep: Selected Poems by the Poet La ureates of Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2000.
Hammond, Ralph, ed. Alabama Poets: A Contemporary Anthology. Livingston, Ala.: Livingston University Press, 1990.
University of Montevallo
Published September 29, 2008
Last updated December 2, 2013