In Defense of the Poet Laureate
On Politics, Art, and Inaugural Doggerel
In September 2002, two months after he was named poet laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka read at the Dodge Poetry Festival, an annual event held at bucolic Waterloo Village. Baraka was only the second laureate in the state’s history, following Gerald Stern, who supported Baraka’s selection as his successor. One of Baraka’s poems, “Somebody Blew Up America,” jolted the festival’s typically calm crowd. The long poem contains the lines “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / to stay home that day,” a reference to the fringe claim of government foreknowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Anyone familiar with Baraka’s impressive canon knows he often penned controversial lines. Although the poem is a charged indictment of institutional violence delivered through rhetorical questions as declarations, including “Who put the Jews in ovens,” the Anti Defamation League called the poem anti-Semitic. Even the guest editors of a special issue of the African American Review devoted to a critical appreciation of Baraka called the lines “bizarre.”
The lines are bizarre. They reference an absurd and false claim, but Baraka was not a historian. He was a poet. Actually, he was a government poet. Then-governor James E. McGreevey asked Baraka to apologize; he would not. Baraka defended the poem in a speech at the Newark Public Library and in The Star Ledger, leading the state legislature to seek his removal from the position. Unable to remove him, they did the next best thing: abolish the position.
While Gerald Stern disliked Baraka’s poem, he rejected the state’s action against the “minor position,” calling it “like legislation to remove the dogcatcher.” New Jersey remains one of six states without a national poet laureate, although a current Massachusetts bill might cut the list to five. The United States has had a poet laureate since 1986. Robert Penn Warren was the first laureate; Charles Wright currently holds the position. Add to the roster the hundreds of city and town laureates, and a question arises: why are there so many poets laureate?
The national position was preceded by the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” which existed from 1937 to 1985. According to the Library of Congress, the position “initially was similar to that of a reference librarian,” and was expected to “serve primarily as a collection specialist and resident scholar in poetry and literature.” That position evolved from a focus on collection to a focus on promotion through “poetry readings, lectures, conferences, and outreach programs.” For a $35,000 annual stipend and 5,000 in travel expenses, the current poet laureate position does much the same at no cost to taxpayers; the position is privately funded through a gift from the estate of philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington.
Baraka was a performance artist, and in so being, stepped on the toes of the government troupe of performance artists: local politicians.
Although the position might be fiscally harmless, not everybody loves the idea of a national poet laureate. Critic Joseph Epstein calls the position “exceedingly pompous, not to say a little preposterous,” and thinks it should be “mocked every chance one gets.” He claims that, “What is wanted in a poet laureate is a rather solemn and high-toned mediocrity, someone whose work, though found perfectly acceptable in its time, is unlikely to divert the attention of posterity.” While Epstein admits there have been “good” poets in the position, others have been “merely acceptable.” They have all been politically safe.
Epstein suggests that, “The poet laureate of the United States should also be the best poet in the country; if he isn’t then the job is meaningless.” Epstein sounds like he is criticizing some hypothetical office, not the national poet laureate. The position has never been claimed to represent the best national poet, however subjective that title. In fact, considering the position’s precedent, the poet laureate would be a poet-critic with a significant public presence. Epstein’s claim that “poetry cannot really be promoted—only appreciated,” while epigrammatic enough to sound aphoristic, is ultimately reductive. Epstein says that “poetry is caviar—an acquired taste,” but we might say the same about liver. Or lichens.
Epstein skewers former laureate Joseph Brodsky’s plan to “place poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms” by saying poetry is demeaned when “[sold] as if it were hot dogs.” But Brodsky’s rhyme had reason. He thought poetry “should be as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us, and from which poetry derives many of its similes.” He wanted to increase the volume of poetry volumes. At the minimum, “an anthology of American poetry should be found in the drawer in every room in every motel in the land, next to the Bible, which will surely not object to this proximity, since it does not object to the proximity of the phone book.” It is difficult to fault Brodsky’s passion here; this was a man who said “poetry is not a form of entertainment, and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon.”
Brodsky’s inspirational worth aside, I do share Epstein’s general hesitations about the intersection of poetry and the government, but likely for different reasons. I see the debacle surrounding Baraka’s poem as a test case, and a warning. The general public’s lack of comfort with poetry makes them view any governmental position associated with the art form as nebulous, and therefore open to unfounded criticism. Many national poets laureate, including Billy Collins, would consider such unawareness the exact reason why the position should exist. Collins’s Poetry 180 program specifically targeted the experience of reading poetry in high school.
Collins chose short poems that could be read over a school’s loudspeaker: “Ideally, the editor of the student literary magazine would read one day and the volleyball coach the next day; a member of the grounds crew might be followed by the principal.” I want to both laugh and cry at his idealism. I have taught public-school English for the past decade. Those who do not teach speak of high school with nostalgic optimism. Years in the classroom replace that wide-eyed idealism with a hardened, realistic sense—I would call it, simply, love—and the knowledge that scholastic poetry promotions are as successful as convincing most citizens to vote in local elections.
Ideally, the national poet laureate would be a talented, practicing poet with some critical acumen who is a wonder at not only promoting poetry, but also increasing an understanding of, and appreciation for, that poetry. I recognize that statement is as romantic as Collins’s desire to “ambush” high school students with poetry. Even if the poet laureate is not the best poet in the country, what she deems as good poetry—and good poets—is likely to be the subject of endless debate, with some derision.
I say that not merely because poets like to bicker, but because of what happened to Baraka. Now, I do not mean to conflate the roles of national and more regional poets laureate. They differ greatly. The national position is a symbol. The state positions, as regional officers, are susceptible to unexamined corruption (I say that as a lifelong resident of New Jersey, where we have simmered corruption to perfection). One only need look to the Carolinas for a pair of recent cautionary tales.
In July 2014, Governor Pat McCrory named Valerie Macon as the poet laureate of North Carolina. Macon’s appointment was unusual because the state arts council was not part of the nomination or selection process, as well as the fact that Macon was a self-published poet whose website mistakenly identified some of her accolades. Macon’s inexperience was in direct contrast with her predecessor, Joseph Bathanti, a professor at Appalachian State who has authored eight books of poetry and taught prison writing workshops for 35 years.
The state poetry community derided the choice, and Macon quickly resigned. Macon’s love for poetry was never in question; rather, she seems like a nice person placed in an unfortunate position. Her resignation letter struck a populist tone, noting that people “do not need a list of prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations—just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression.” Her statement is well-taken, but besides the point. The poet laureate is not the only poet in the state, but she at least must be qualified to represent it. We should heed the analogy of the late Philip Levine, who served as national poet laureate: “If you give the Congressional Medal of Honor to everybody who got drafted, in a way you water down the award.”
Macon’s debacle struck a nerve with other state poet laureates, including Marjory Wentworth from bordering South Carolina. In a letter to The New York Times, Wentworth wrote that “Lots of people ‘dabble’ in poetry, and that’s great, but it’s not the same as becoming a literary artist. Poetry is an art form that requires enormous effort and craft.” Wentworth’s words shouldn’t be seen as tough love; why can’t poets demand excellence and respect?
In office since 2003, Wentworth is one of the current laureates with the longest terms, having written poems for three gubernatorial inaugurations. Wentworth also wrote a poem this past January for Governor Nikki Haley’s inauguration, the Republican’s second term. The poem, “One River, One Boat,” begins, “Because our history is a knot / we try to unravel, while others / try to tighten it, we tire easily / and fray the cords that bind us.” This is a poem worthy of an event; a poem that reaches sentiment. It is a poem about the weight of history: “Consider the prophet John, calling us / from the edge of the wilderness to name / the harm that has been done, to make it / plain, and enter the river and rise.”
Haley’s administration nixed Wentworth’s poem from the schedule due to time constraints. She, and others, suspect the reason might have to do with the final quarter of the poem. Wentworth invokes a stop along the river where slaves awaited “auction, death, or worse.” That river, “clogged with corpses / has kept centuries of silence.” The speaker of the poem thinks now is the time for repentance:
Here, where the Confederate flag still flies
beside the Statehouse, haunted by our past,
conflicted about the future; at the heart
of it, we are at war with ourselves
huddled together on this boat
handed down to us—stuck
at the last bend of a wide river
splintering near the sea.
It is a gorgeous poem, and should have been included in the ceremony. When Congressman James E. Clyburn learned that “One River, One Boat” would not be included, he read the poem into the Congressional Record, adding, “We have seen many instances of arbitrary actions against the powerless by the powerful when words and actions threaten their comfort levels. Such actions should not be.”
I contacted Wentworth after the initial interest settled. She felt that the “response to this poem has been both moving and profound,” and “have to do with forces much bigger than me.” She notes that the “racial unrest that began in Ferguson and spread throughout the country in late 2014, coupled with the horrific killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in early January which united the world in defense of free speech, form the backdrop into which the poem was dropped. It was a perfect storm of circumstances, and the poem resonated with many people who care deeply about social justice issues but don’t necessarily have a voice. Isn’t this the true job of the poet?”
Wentworth says the event has changed how she views her position as poet laureate: “The ‘banning’ of the poem is a reflection of this governor’s general attitude toward the arts and education, and I am in more of a position than ever before to try and change that. I would like to take advantage of the groundswell of support I have received to find ways to increase funding for arts education.” There is something terribly poetic about how this drama is unfolding: the tension of a poet versus her government, how that stricture might sustain the art. Because Wentworth is working from within, she likely must retain a certain political moderation. Baraka, in contrast, allowed his government-funded verse to transcend the metaphorical and enter the visceral. He was a performance artist, and in being so, stepped on the toes of the government troupe of performance artists: local politicians.
Diane DiPrima, former poet laureate of San Francisco, offers good advice for laureates in “First Draft, Poet Laureate Oath of Office”: “It is the poem I serve / luminous, through time . . . it is the people of San Francisco / in their beauty.” She writes for those “passionate angry silent / powerful in their silence.” Her “vow” is “to remind us all” that “there is no time / too desperate / no season / that is not / a Season of Song.” DiPrima’s first book, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, was released in 1958 by Totem Press. Her publisher? Amiri Baraka.
I return to Baraka for a reason beyond synchronicity. New Jersey is home to a significant roster of writers: Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Díaz, Norman Mailer, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Crane, Allen Ginsberg, and more. Yet the state laureateship remains merely a footnote in our legislative history. I talked to poet Rigoberto González, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a professor in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, about whether the position should be reinstated. He strongly supported the return of the office, noting that a state “poet laureate is an ambassador for the arts, an advocate for creativity and communication, a coalition-builder who brings different communities together so that they may listen and learn from one another.” The position helps “enrich our perspectives of New Jersey’s cultural landscape, legacy and history, and raise awareness of the critical role of literacy in our everyday lives. We owe it to the young people who are curious or even anxious about language to designate an innovative thinker and motivator who can encourage them to interact with, instead of fearing, the complexities of writing.” González’s words are those of both an educator and a poet, and make me think that despite my worry that the office of poet laureate might be bent in a political direction—right or left—that is a risk worth taking.
Poetry has always been an optimistic art. Percy Shelley’s classic essay “The Defence of Poetry” ends with the oft-quoted line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Quoted less often are his reasons for this claim. Shelley thinks poets “measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age.” Rather than outsiders, “poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.” Idealistic sentiments, to be certain. As idealistic, perhaps, as the idea of a democracy.