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09.30.09

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Bullhorn:

Santa Cruz Poet Laureate nominee Stephen Kessler wonders if anyone really needs a poet laureate.

By Stephen Kessler


WHEN I first received the call from the Cultural Council informing me that I'd been nominated for the newly created post of Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate, naturally I was flattered--honored, even, to be among the candidates in this community crawling with accomplished poets. On reflection, though, I wonder what it means to be poet laureate, and whether Santa Cruz really needs one.

The idea of a poet laureate was invented by the British (and named for the Greek and Roman custom of crowning a winning athlete with laurel leaves) as a position of patronage in the royal court. The monarch accorded the honor to his chosen bard and in exchange the poet would compose appropriate odes for state occasions--like, for example, the king's birthday. While the custom has evolved, even in England, beyond such courtly duties, the role of laureate carries about it a whiff of Official Respectability at odds with the American tradition, beginning with the radical Walt Whitman (and the reclusive Emily Dickinson), of the poet as democratic wild man (or antisocial eccentric).

Only since 1986, when Robert Penn Warren was named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, has the United States had a poet laureate. The PL's job has since become one of chief pitchman for poetry's presumably salubrious pleasures--a Garrison Keilloresque promoter of verse as an "accessible" and edifying ingredient in the cultural life of the nation. Like eating your vegetables, reading poetry is supposedly good for you.

Actually, in my experience some poems may be good for you and some not so good. Like vegetables, poems can be over- or undercooked, fresh or soggy, delicious or disgusting, green or moldy. There is no inherent virtue in poetry. Perhaps the "obscurity" and "elitism" that once gave poetry a bad name with the masses are no worse than the blandness and mediocrity that have lately made it somewhat more popular. Shelley called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (my emphasis), and Julio Cortázar once said that the writer in our time is a bit like the medieval fool, "who between two jokes would tell the king four truths."

I'm not sure, in any case, what exactly a poet laureate would do around here. The energetic folks of Poetry Santa Cruz do an excellent job of making poetry available to anyone who may be interested. But I remember when poetry was a secret vice, an intimate indulgence, and while I confess to having done my share over the years to infiltrate the atmosphere with the subversive power of the poetic imagination, I still favor the idea of the poet as someone beyond or beneath the law--someone in the margins, where he or she is truly free to say whatever the muses dictate, even if it should prove impolitic--rather than as a literary equivalent to the surgeon general.

So, public venues for poetry? Absolutely. Poems for any and all people and occasions? Sure, if you can find the inspiration. A crown of laurels? Bring it on--and don't forget the olive oil. But maybe a guerrilla theater of poetry is a more enriching concept of the art, and the art's role in society, than is the wholesome notion of laureateship.

Stephen Kessler's recent books include 'Burning Daylight' (poems), 'Moving Targets: On Poets, Poetry & Translation' (essays), and 'Desolation of the Chimera' by Luis Cernuda (translation). He is the editor of 'The Redwood Coast Review.'


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