Chair of Maryland's 2009 Poet Laureate Selection Committee
October 9, 2008
It may strike some of us as an antique notion, this Poet Lauerate business. Surely, when we consider who it is our society crowns with laurels, poets are not the first people to come to mind.
The poet W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen/It survives in the valley of its saying where executives/would never want to tamper.”
In this era of sound bites and canned speeches, “zingers” and bloggers and talking heads, the importance of poetry in our civic life perhaps seems an antique notion as well.
And yet, I would ask you to recall our public discourse in the days and weeks that followed September 11, 2001. It struck me then that time and time again, our public commentators, on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, even in the halls of government, turned to poetry to express what we, in our grief and our confusion, could find no words for.
From W.B. Yeats’ “A terrible beauty is born” to Emily Dickinson’s “There came a wind like a bugle,” to Auden’s own, prophetic poem, September 1, 1939, which begins:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.
This is the role of the poet in our civic life: to give us words for our experience when that experience causes our own words to fail us. To use the complex gifts of our beautiful language to record - precisely, subtly, vividly – our collective experience, not only of grief and confusion, but of joy, hope, even of just muddling through. It is the poet’s role to remind us of our common humanity, our worst failings as well as our highest aspirations. The poet’s duty to (Auden again) “undo the folded lie,” and to leave for future generations, those the poet Wallace Stevens called the “children picking up our bones,” a record not only of our actions but of “What we felt at what we saw.”
It is a great honor for me, a mere fiction writer, one who needs a hundred pages to say what a poet can convey in a stanza, to be asked by Governor O’Malley to help select our state’s next poet laureate. I do so with a great appreciation for the Governor’s own high regard for the written – and sometimes sung – word, and for the vital work being done by the many poets in our state.
It is, perhaps, an antique notion, this poet laureate thing – but antique in the best sense of the word: a tradition that, like poetry itself, connects us to our past, endures change, and, even without our notice, slowly but inexorably gains value with the passage of time.