(Hidden Track): Poetry in Public Places
from TriQuarterly, Issue 135 /136
It's patently ludicrous to believe any poet laureate, whether state or national, can resuscitate American poetry. I know a bit of what I speak. I've been a state laureate for more than five years. The job is Sisyphean, shouldering the boulder of poetry up the steep peak of public disinterest. Yes, there are successes, momentary and deceptive, in which one entices a skeptical audience to believe poetry's word and song matter in their lives. But these are isolated instants bracketed by classroom bell or nursing home meds. Then for them it's off to phys ed or physical therapy, and routine again thickens their blood with the mundane. Rather than inciting me to slit my poetic wrists, the transitory nature of what I call "the verse effect" is actually freeing. Like the poem itself, I say what I can say and then fall silent. It is all I can do.
Most of the seed I scatter lands on biblical cinders, only to be crushed beneath the wheels of rusted Fords and Chevies. Some spills into the sweaty hands of those who catch and try to pocket it before the long walk home among night's tiny candles. Then the cell phone rings, and they awaken not to dream but to their aged mother's need of bread and help locating the TV remote. Is this not how art works in the real world? How few of us have had our lives utterly and lastingly altered by a single painting, song, film, or poem? How few have quit our job or left our spouse and kids to chart a new course found among the constellations of art? Yes, yes, a "few," which means not many, meaning some, and that, I say, is enough. Art's best magic conjures its sorcery only among the few, as has always been the case. The rest of us have the solace of momentary reverie, of evanescent ecstatic release. It tastes sweet and good, or pools bitter as bile upon the tongue, but soon our pulse regains its measure, and we do as well. To effect this change, ephemeral as it is, remains the stock work of the artist. To bewail its transitory nature is to decry its very essence—like flashed insight, flushed emotion, or volcanic orgasm, the transport is so enthralling because it is so brief.
During my tenure, I have had the pleasure, the distinctly American pleasure, of reading in over one hundred exotic venues. Those spots include various primary, middle, and high schools, nursing homes, public parks, community colleges, universities, factories, churches, public libraries, and radio stations. In each, I have been met with a Midwestern blend of curiosity and fear, respect and suspicion—not because of who I am or what my poetry says, but because the poet laureate, as Michael Collier suggests, is a kind of public "figurehead." I became the physical embodiment of an ethereal and intangible notion. I became the tangible expression of what the audience had variously aspired to, feared, detested, or simply ignored. My work and I became a commodity to be inspected, appraised, and purchased or refused—the essential American (Is it redundant to say capitalist?) negotiation. All this smacked exotic for me, accustomed as I was to operating on the margins of society that offers at best benign neglect. In real ways I have felt the pressures of bringing marginalized art into the public sphere where my poems and my person either persuade poetry haters to reconsider their tastes or sadly confirm all their worst assumptions. Despite my sense of what modest achievement might be had, or likely because of it, the experience has been oddly enriching.
Perhaps that is because the public has little idea of what a poet laureate is and does. Most don't realize the term "laureate" descends from medieval universities' tradition of crowning graduates with laurel leaves (the root, of course, still visible in "baccalaureate") and assigning those specializing in poetry (studied in scholarly Greek and Latin) the label of "poets laureate." Though Virgil had served as Emperor Augustus's court poet, Petrarch is considered the first to be tabbed with the official title of poet laureate in 1341. Later, all manner of kings and fiefdoms kept poets in court to record in verse the nobleman's triumphs—the birth of a prince, the winning of a battle, the beauty of his queen, etc. If one employed minstrels to play and sing, knights to fight battles, jesters to tell jokes, then one rightly ought to maintain a poet to perform the court's versifying duties. Over time, the poet laureate's obligation to write such occasional verse fell by the wayside, Wordsworth dispensing with the notion altogether when he served a brief term in his dotage.
Typical of the (mis)assumptions about the role and person of the laureate are the impressions held by the ninety-five six-graders to whom I spoke at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois. A bright, lively, and ethnically diverse group, these twelve year olds gushed audible astonishment when I sauntered into the half-lit theater. I was not what they'd expected. So I asked them to close their eyes and describe the kind of person they imagined would be laureate. Though they giggled, they were instructively honest in their assessment. The laureate would be white, male, and graying, if not altogether bald. He would carry a cane which he'd rap upon the floor or upon a desk to demand attention. He'd wear tweed, probably one of those elbow-patched houndstooth models favored by the gentry. His accent would be British, or on second thought, something thickly French topped off with black beret. He might wear a chin beard, long and pointy, and he would stroke it as he lectured. He would give forth something profound, read a poem or two of his own, and then recite a ditty by someone long dead—and they wouldn't get any of it. There would be no laughing and no squirming in their seats, or there'd be penance to pay in extra assignments. He would not ask them what they like—or hate—about poetry. He would not beg to hear their poems, verse happily chiming or as cold lonely as February asphalt. They would not get to pose questions like "Can poets get rich?"; "What makes you like to write poems, anyway?"; or "Do you have a dog?"
Both precocious and insightful, these young students had framed a familiar dialectic—How might the poet practice an ostensibly elitist art and yet promote its democratic foundations? The question is both keen and intractable. To be a poet is to dedicate oneself to an ancient art not widely practiced, to study it with historical fervor and passion of the specialist, and if one is lucky, to become accomplished at what few others do (or want to do) equally as well. Yet, as laureate, one is trotted out to assure the masses poetry can be theirs too, dilettante poet or mere fan, to sway them into believing poetry's arcane mystery and calling might resonate within their lives as well. One is charged, in sum, to convince the disbelieving or the merely distracted that poetry might again surge electric within the big democratic life we call community. It's telling to recall Longfellow was the last American poet to achieve such broad scale embrace for poetry as communal organ. Squandering the wisdom of hindsight, we look around for our time's Whitman, forgetting he was outcast in his own. No wonder the audience hardly knows what to expect.
Among my goals as laureate has been to put poetry in places folks least expected it. One focus has been to visit public libraries in rural or urban locales not generally immersed in the poetry scene. If possible, I wanted to favor Carnegie Libraries because of my personal attachment to them. When I was a boy, my hometown's Carnegie library hovered above the factory smog and dust like some enchanted kingdom. Its great dome seemed to ascend the gray Hoosier sky and tinge it blue, if only for the hours I thumbed pages beneath its stained glass expanse. I've since had the pleasure of reading poetry in the Carnegie libraries of Delevan and Kewanee, Illinois, among others, staged quaintly before January's blazing fireplace and alongside July's thrown open, curtain-waving windows. I've been reacquainted with my own introduction to books, and that's been thrilling. The labors of the job are not wholly altruistic. Anyway, it's wrong to call the laureateship a job, for in most states, as in mine, one's efforts are not supported by stipend, by project budget, or by travel funds. Serving as laureate is thus a form of honorific volunteer work.
One incident at the public library of Mendota, Illinois, stands out for its jumble of humor and poignancy. A brand-spanking-new building much beloved by its citizens, Mendota's library illustrates the pivotal functions libraries serve in small towns. Although To Read or Not to Read, the NEA's gloomy 2007 report on reading's death rattle in America, describes a culture increasingly inured to reading's allures, the word has not yet reached Mendota. A ragtag blend of citizens uses the library's computers and the fast Internet connection most don't have money for at home. The children's reading room overflows with kids and parents, a swarming brood skittering this way and that with books tumbling from their arms. High school kids, sporting iPod earphones dangling white lightning from their ears, read at the library's big-shouldered oak tables, feet tapping as their eyes ride the texts' highways. Some old folks thumb newspapers in comfortable chairs, leaning to chat in sour-breathed whispers. In short, the library seems as much social as educational venue.
On the night of my reading, over two hundred folks gathered in the library's largest room, arcing around me on chairs and carpet, spilling out into the hallway. I'd wager not even the librarian had read my poems, so it wasn't me they'd come for. For them it was akin to going to the movies, poetry transporting them to some distant spot they'd probably never get to or delivering the billowing flames of a car chase gone awry. Though the laureate's silver-screen strangeness lured a few, the event's potent social appeal drew most folks, for the town's yearly poetry competition results were to be announced that evening—a contest whose participants ranged from school kids to the blue-haired set.
As I began to read, stillness settled ankle deep about the room like nothing I'd ever experienced. I wasn't fool enough to think my poems induced such hypnotic response. Instead, it was the audience's reverence for the notion of poetry, something they considered a private matter of public import. The scene was Rockwellian, yes, but the mood was as lively as any big city coffeehouse where performance poetries mute the line between audience and artist, poet and performer. The art still breathed life in north central Illinois. And just as notably, poetry bore social relevance as a cultural happening. Men in ill-fitting Sunday suits and guys in overalls puddled beside their wives, dutiful husbands hauled out on a spring evening better suited for planting crops. Gradually, they laughed in the right spots, rustled relaxed in their folding chairs, let out and gathered breath they'd held awaiting some great bang they feared as much as expected. Afterwards, the mayor awarded me the key to the City of Mendota, steroidal brass too bulky to pocket and shiny with postmodern irony one stifles only through staunch effort. Then I handed out the town's poetry award certificates to young and old alike. In a moment both surreal and quaint, parents asked to photograph their award-winning kid beside me holding the certificate suitable for framing. That photo seemed destined to sleep dust-bunnied under the kid's bed or to be zapped to digital ether when someone spring-cleaned the camera's memory stick, but its context I understood. Each parent marked the child's achievement with a Kodak moment. What struck me even more was how poetry still carried societal street cred in this community, where writing a winning poem earned distinction equal to hitting the game-winning basket or jacking the walk-off home run.
As I gathered my books and trundled to the car, a fellow in overalls sidled up, ball cap in hand. He admitted the wife had dragged him with her, first to Denny's for Thursday's fried chicken special and then for some poetry. He shook my hand, summoning courage, and said, "Buddy, that wasn't half bad." A Midwesterner's compliment. Decoded, what he'd said meant it wasn't as painful as he'd expected, that he'd followed at least some of what I'd read, that poetry for him had been (and mostly still is) foreign language from a distant land. Is this as good as any laureate can hope to achieve—poetry's momentary society of self and other in the rarefied domain of art?
Over time, I experienced similar fleeting instances where my efforts at poetic public outreach struck veins of ore in plots I'd never suspected held gold for them or for me. There was the time all the nursing home ladies—those whom time and family had forgotten—sat smiling, applauding my reading with verve they never gave their daily therapy sessions. They smiled, yes, until one could no longer contain herself and asked when I was going to read some real poems because none of mine rhymed. From that I learned to begin with a sonnet and end with a pantoum, leaving the aged welcome among the chiming. There was the time when the pheromonally-voiced FM Classic Rock radio host named Vonda interviewed me on air, begging my apt sound byte right after she cut from the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," a moment frozen in the big-hair days of my 70s youth and one that earned props from my teenage son. Then Vonda read the poem she'd written for me that very morning, composed in the shower washing all her best parts. There was the Chicago suburban school in whose library I spoke to two hundred disinterested teenagers conscripted for moral and aesthetic betterment, my first public laureate event. A storm had raged earlier in the day, prompting the library's colander roof to cascade rain water down a tarp and into a pink plastic tub the flummoxed janitor kept excusing himself to empty. Two guys banged on the roof, chipping at ice and cursing in the elevated manner of my late father. Their thumping so thumped not even the feedbacked microphone carried my voice above the din. Worse yet, the students' half-stifled yawns and sleepily-tabled heads demonstrated my poems might, if marketed properly, outsell Ambien as insomnia treatment. Still, five kids in black tees and jeans hung around to show me their snappy Apple-produced alternative literary journal, the first poem as wild as Ginsburg, the last as coy as Marianne Moore. From that I learned to refuse conscripts—they always defect before the second poem's done—and learned as well to study the Weather Channel assiduously.
When the private-poet/public-verse puzzle seemed hopeless, often but not always a piece fell into place with intoxicating grace. Say, the high school students of Wheaton, Illinois, who write and prepare all year for their annual poetry coffeehouse. Fueled by the energy of smart and gifted teachers, these students have forged a literary community unheard of in most high schools. Their readers include the usual suspects—literature, art, and theater students—but the group also lassoes football and soccer players, school band members, orchestra students, and the like. What's more, over half of the participants are male, this at the age when most young men imprison their words as well as their emotions behind the stoic stucco of grunts and zits. One factor contributing to poetry's acceptance among these teenage males is the multitude of male (mostly youngish) English teachers who serve as role models for the boys. Shameful but true, it's vastly easier for teenage males to show sensitivity to language, self, and other when they find the same qualities embodied in men they admire.
Then there's the conundrum of my lunchtime reading for workers of Kewanee's Bomag Corporation, a factory manufacturing machinery for road paving and construction. As a college undergrad, I'd labored making cardboard, "corrugated paper," as the union suggested we say in public, at Container Corporation of America. (The poet John Knoepfle shares this dubious distinction of tending CCA's night shift.) The factory's piece-work rates loomed Olympian, out of mortals' reach, frustrating those fool enough to attempt to best the standard rate. A puddle of sweat bumped one's wage up 10¢ an hour and earned a wink from the lame foreman lounging on his battered wooden stool. The workplace was Death Valley in summer, Greenland in winter. At break, circled in the yellow metal box where in those days one could smoke 'em if you've got 'em, the middle-aged men I worked alongside whispered above the coffee cup's curled lip, "Stay in school, kid." For them, for their calling me a fancy pants poet mostly in jest, I pledged to read in a factory. At Bomag, roughly thirty men and women workers risked indigestion to hear me read. The bulk of them slouched at gray metal tables slamming down pastrami on rye and emptying a thermos of coffee, their idle machines crouched and waiting beyond the cafeteria's double door. I read a poem or two about my factory work; I read something by Philip Levine, something by James Wright. I thanked them and turned to leave. A few lunch-boxed their sandwiches, stood up from their bench's cushionless seat, and asked for more, intent to fill the ten minutes they owned before toggling themselves and their machines back on. I knew my poems had not enacted a sea-change within them, transforming the lot into aficionados of PBS who'll change their truck radios' presets to NPR. Still, though they'd perhaps not read a poem since tenth grade, they'd let me know poetry at least topped the Musak their company customarily piped into the soporific lunchroom.
Joseph Epstein, bright and witty guy he, has identified in his view a number of jobs "not worth having," among them proctologist, urologist and poet laureate of the United States. He's right if the United States' laureate or any of the thirty-eight or so state poets laureate has taken on the position as act of self-aggrandizement. The position, rightfully considered, is no big deal. After all, it's more important to be poet than to be laureate. To write one's poems as well as one can, to evolve and find new forms of expression, to extend the art within the culture if only in a minor way, these are much more life-giving and redemptive to both art and society than making the grade school reading circuit. I harbor no illusion that any laureate, myself included, is singlehandedly going to seduce the broad public to embrace poetry in the manner of previous centuries when poetry faced no competitors for the populace's eyes and ears. But poetic appreciation need not become the focal vortex of one's life for its currents to flood, if only occasionally and transitorily, one's experience of being human.
Then again, unforeseen results issue from what I call "laureateeering," those visits to schools and reading groups and libraries comprising much of what we see as the laureate's current function in our culture. Donald Hall calls this sort of figure the "activist laureate." One never knows who is in the audience: what child, old man, or middle-aged woman who might hear the word or phrase they've been searching for but could not find for themselves. Individuals who hear in one's language, or in one's attention to language, the spark to fire their own. Who discover not only a need but also a means to voice what must be spoken. My predecessor as state laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, grasped both the position's obstinate challenges and its evident possibilities. Equally pertinacious and expectant, she spent long afternoons among schoolchildren. One such young man showing up in Brooks's writers group was Ellis Cose, a high-schooler just beginning to question the color line in 1960s Chicago. Brooks, as was her wont, recognized talent in Cose. As Cose reveals in a 2007 Newsweek column, she persuasively encouraged him "to focus on becoming a writer." Deciding "to follow Brooks's advice," Cose embarked, setting out to write his way to comprehending the fires of April 1968 when his Chicago neighborhood exploded after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since then, and on a national scale, he's been writing about racial division and the misunderrstanding and distrust that fuel it. Might not each laureate, trundling along the school reading circuit, hope to incite the same?
Let me be clear. Influencing one kid to pursue a writer's life is not the same as righting poetry's ship and setting her off with sail in full trim. The cultural workings of art have always been more properly individual and personal, as are its pleasures. It is cliché to suggest that if only one person is affected by any laureate's labors, then—sigh, cue the violins and the lavender sachet stitched within white linen—the work has been successful. That sort of pap embarrasses us all. What I am suggesting is this: While no wholesale popular revolution in favor of poetry is forthcoming, innumerable tiny epiphanies are as likely as not. The truest revolution resides within the self anyway, and there lies art's native province.
These results are those we might reasonably expect from public outreach in an age when some wrongly proclaim poetry dead upon the citizenry's ears. Listen. Poetry's hidden track, in the manner of the compact disk's—music after the album's ostensible ending—offers up song layered with and after silence. Thus, the obligation of the laureate as practicing poet, especially in an era purportedly well after the end of poetry, is to incite in others and to embody in oneself poetry's afterlife.
About the Author
Kevin Stein is the author of nine books of poetry and criticism, including the collections Sufficiency of the Actual (University of Illinois, 2008) and American Ghost Roses (University of Illinois, 2005), winner of the Society of Midland Authors Poetry Award. Serving as Illinois Poet Laureate since 2003, he teaches at Bradley University. This essay will appear in the forthcoming book, Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (University of Michigan Press).
Editors: Susan Firestone Hahn and Ian Morris