EP&M Online Report

The changing role of America’s state poet laureates

by Tanya Angell Allen

                                                    “You’ll catch hell for this.”
                                                                -Amiri Baraka to Governor James E. McGreevey
                                                                     on Baraka’s appointment to poet laureate of New Jersey

    Saddam Hussein’s henchmen used to kill dissident poets by shoving pages of books down their throats until they choked.  Josef Brodsky, Nina Cassian, and other Russian and Romanian poets sought asylum in the United States because their own governments persecuted them for their poetry and political beliefs.  When Carolyn Forche was in El Salvador several years ago, a colonel invited her to dinner because he mistakenly thought that American poets’ words were regarded as highly as those of poets in his own country.  At one point of the dinner he brought in a brown sack, opened it, and spilled human ears onto the table.  According to the notes Forche took afterwards and later turned into the prose poem “The Colonel,” he started speaking:

    “I am tired of fooling around, he said.  As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves.  He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of the wine in the air.  Something for your poetry, no?”

    Perhaps because they have the freedom to concentrate on other, less urgent subjects, American poets are in general less likely than poets of other countries to write about political issues.  When they do write political poetry they usually do not have to risk their own personal safety, especially because the audience for poetry is smaller in America than it is in other countries.  However, at this moment forty one American states honor poets with state laureateships, posts which some consider to be actual government positions.  Over the past two years some of those laureates and other poets have also gained national attention through writing and speaking about the September eleven attacks and the invasion of Iraq—attention which some of them, such as Amiri Baraka and anti-war poets Marilyn Nelson and David Allen Evans, would probably not have received if they didn’t already hold honorary posts.  In late April 2003, the first-ever  conference of poets laureates was held in New Hampshire to talk about poetry and politics, a gathering the New York Times describes as having “an aura of self-congratulation…with many of the poets extolling what they said was poetry’s newfound power.”
     Until recently, state poet laureates in these honorary positions were regarded as lightweight, folksy writers whose works were sold as tourist paraphernalia at roadside restaurants.  Those laureates who were “real” poets, (as opposed to song-writer John Denver—much loved poet laureate of Colorado from 1974 until his death in 1997, or Assemblyman Charles Gus Garrigus, who held a life-time appointment as poet-laureate of California because he punctuated each legislative session with a poem) sometimes read nature poems before their state legislatures, or gave readings at public schools.  This was usually more than was expected of them, however, especially as legislators and the general public viewed state poets as quaint, benign creatures, much like state birds, state songs, and state fish.

     Then, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, rap music and Spoken Word poetry began bringing national attention to poetry.  Also, in April 1991 Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter” was published in the Atlantic Monthly.  The essay urged poets and teachers to bring poetry out of the Academy and into the public arena.  Some consider the piece, as Gioia writes in his introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of his book titled after the essay, “an early manifestation of a Zeitgeist already in the making,” especially because it generated more mail from non-academics than any other Atlantic article had in decades.  Along with the interest generated by the new emphasis on oral poetry, it also helped sound a much-needed wake-up call to literati across the country.
    In the past dozen years America has answered Gioia’s question, “Can poetry matter?” with a tentative yes.  In testimony of this, Gioia’s introduction mentions Garison Keilor’s “The Writer’s Almanac,” the Poetry Society of America’s “Poetry in Motion” efforts to put poetry in city subways, the Academy of American Poets’ National Poetry Month campaign, the publication of poetry in some newspapers, and a plethora of specialized on-line poetry journals.  Other symptoms of poetry’s forays outside of the Academy include the continued popularity of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project,” Russell Simmons’s “Def Poetry” on HBO and on Broadway, and the outreach done by energetic poets laureate such as Robert Hass and Billy Collins.

    State poet laureate positions have also changed from honorific titles for mediocre poets to jobs for literary evangelists and, in some states, literary superstars.  Although many states still have poets who are not widely known, New York has John Ashbury; Iowa, Marvin Bell; New Jersey, Amiri Baraka; Connecticut, Marilyn Nelson; Florida, Edmund Skellings; Georgia, David Bottoms; and Maryland, Michael Collier.  Sharon Olds was once a New York poet laureate. And although she was appointed long before the current change in poetry’s stature, Gwendolyn Brooks was the poet laureate of Illinois from 1969 to her death in 2000.  Brooks’ dynamic work with her state’s schools may have been an influence on the now-increasing demands and qualities of many other state’s poet laureates.  

    Because of the success Brooks and other laureates have had in inspiring children to read poetry, some legislators have also begun using the positions for advancing state-wide literacy.  When Governor Ruth Ann Minner named Fleda Brown as state poet laureate of Delaware, for instance, she said that “One of my top priorities for Delaware is to improve reading comprehension in our state.  By discussing poetry with Delaware students and others, Dr. Brown will also promote the importance of reading.”

            There currently are poetry-advocates in the White House as well.  In February 2003 First Lady and librarian Laura Bush organized a forum on “Poetry and the American Voice,” which was cancelled due to the intended protests of anti-war poets, whose aborted crusade made national headlines.  The Bush administration has also assembled a State Department anthology on what it means to be an American writer. The anthology includes poets Elmaz Abinader, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, Julia Alvarez, Linda Hogan, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robert Pinsky.  It is currently being distributed through American embassies throughout the world in hopes of improving foreign opinions of the United States.

    Although some members of the Bush administration seem to have an appreciation for the power of poets and their words, many state legislators know less about the poets in their own jurisdictions. In most states the poet laureates are chosen by panels made up of arts administrators, professors, and poets from neighboring states. Sometimes legislators have final approval, and sometimes, as in New Jersey, they have no hand in the selection. This can be dangerous for legislators, especially if they don’t have a comprehension of how politically dangerous poetry can be, or of how much poetry, even in America, really does matter.


    Poetry matters so much that on January 23, 2003 the New Jersey senate voted to abolish its state poet laureate position completely.

    The senate came to this decision after New Jersey state poet laureate Amiri Baraka’s repeated public readings of “Somebody Blew Up America,” a rant whose most controversial lines, “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed./Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay at home that day” imply that Israel was involved with the World Trade Center attacks.  In national TV interviews Baraka has also claimed that George Bush and other Western leaders knew about these attacks in advance.

    Baraka’s ideas are based on conspiracy theories spread most commonly on the Internet, as well as on the idea that, because blacks have been the victims of so much terrorism in America already, black people cannot get as upset as the rest of America over the September 11 attacks,.  Critics of Baraka claim that he is Anti-Semitic, his words designed to, as Shai Goldstein of the Anti-Defamation League says, “perpetuate the murder of millions of Jews in Israel.”  Baraka claims that his critics are racist.  

    Although those who wish to censor him seem to be violating Baraka’s First Amendment Rights, Goldstein maintains that those are not at issue.  “The issue,” he says instead, “is whether someone can hold an honorary state position while dishonoring the state by making bigoted statements.”  Baraka’s position, unlike those of other states’ laureates, is not purely honorary, either—he receives a stipend paid for by the New Jersey taxpayers.

    Even without the anti-Semitic charges, Baraka’s poem and subsequent comments are troubling for their use of misinformation.  This includes the line “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers to stay home that day,” which is a logistical impossibility, as there have never been 4,000 Israelis working at the World Trade Center.  Governor McGreevey has said that “Clearly there needs to be a bright line between poetic license and governmental discourse,” and Baraka and others have pointed out that exaggeration is a common poetic tool.  However, as poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka is seen as a spokesperson for the state, and his poem, as McGreevey regretfully says, “sets forth falsehoods as fact.”

    The wording of the position, created in 1999, was put in such a way that Baraka could not be fired. He has also refused to resign, saying that his resignation would “repress and stigmatize independent speakers everywhere.”    Because of this the Senate brought in legislation for the purpose of doing away with the position all together.  The vote to abolish the position was 21-0, with nineteen members, including all six black senators, abstaining.

    The vote must still go before the New Jersey Assembly.  In case the Assembly does not cast the same vote, the Senate is currently working on a bill that will allow them to censure Baraka.  It is unknown whether the state will continue to seek candidates for this position—if it survives the Assembly vote—after Baraka has finished his term.

    New Jersey’s situation brings up important questions about the place state poet laureates actually have in their governments.  Are these “government positions,” or are they, as former national poet laureate Robert Pinsky has described them, “honorary terms”?  Being appointed to be a poet laureate “is like being given a compliment,” Pinsky has said.  “The poet laureate of New Jersey has the same right as any other American to make a fool of himself.  Compliments can be regretted, but not revoked.”


    One reason that we don’t have a clear definition of the term “state poet laureate” is that our laureate positions are relatively new.  Britain has had poet laureates since 1616.  America has had state poet laureate positions since 1915, when California gave the honor to Ina Coolbrith—a poet, journalist, and librarian who influenced Jack London and Isadora Duncan and who was friends with Samuel Clemens and Charles Warren Stoddard.   Although we have had national poet laureates since 1937 it wasn’t until 1986 that the position’s title was changed from the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry,” a change in semantics that elevated the national position’s stature and also contributed to the state position’s rise in respectability.
Because our tradition is based on Britain’s, Jim Haba, a member of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Committee that nominated Baraka to that state’s laureate position, was quoted in the New Jersey Record as saying that “Creating the national and state positions of poet laureate involves grafting a British model, begun under a monarchy, onto an American-style democracy with egalitarian ideals.  This is a challenge, and New Jersey, situated between two great cities and with a dense, varied population, often leads the nation with certain types of challenges.”

    As for the facts about state poet laureates, they differ from state to state.  Some states, such as Alaska, alternate between “state poets” and “state writers.”  Other laureates such as Virginia’s George Garrett are more known for their critical work and fiction than for their poetry.  Garret has even said that one of his goals as laureate is to “open up the definition of what constitutes a poet to include other writers.”

    Some states offer stipends, although even at their highest they usually amount to what the poets could pick up in a couple of readings.  Baraka’s stipend, (which the government is currently trying to withhold) is $10,000 for a two-year term.  Vermont offers a stipend of $1000 for a four year term.  Maine offers no stipend.  Poet laureates often have to spend money out of their own pockets for travel expenses to readings and other obligations.

    The lengths of their appointments also vary from state to state.  In New York the appointment is only for one year.  In other states, such as Illinois, the position is a lifetime appointment.

    In most states, what the poet is to do with the position is undefined.  Poets are often asked to “promote creativity,” a task which can be interpreted in different ways.  In some states the poets are asked to give a couple of readings in schools across the state.  In others, such as California, poets are required to take on one two-year project to bring poetry to children and other people who might not otherwise be exposed to it.  Kenneth W. Brewer, newly-appointed poet laureate of Utah, plans to establish a video archive of Utah writers reading their work to audiences or writing it in their homes.  During his time as poet laureate of North Carolina, Fred Chappell had 250 public engagements.  In a farewell essay written at the end of his term he says that “…I visited venues of every sort, from Rotary and Optimists clubs, retirement homes, churches, book clubs, libraries, bookstores, civic centers and so forth. You name it and I was there, reading from the work of North Carolina poets from A (Betty Adcock) to Z (Isabel Zuber).”  

    Poet laureates are sometimes asked to write occasional poems.  Marie Harris, the poet laureate of New Hampshire, was asked to write a poem celebrating the minting of the New Hampshire quarter.  Gwendolyn Brooks voluntarily took Chicago as one of the main subjects for her writing, once saying “I wrote about what I saw and heard on the street…I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other.  That was my material.”
These appointments take up valuable time.  Individuals often ask poet laureates for help with publishing or their own projects.  Former state poet of Vermont Ellen Bryant Voight once said that “Even were I paid grand sums, if I were to go off to all these invitations I would not write another poem for four years.”  
These expectations make the positions more difficult than they would be if they were simply “compliments.”  Although most states do not have clearly-defined expectations for their laureates, the poets who hold these positions are setting precedents for those who come after them.  Connecticut’s first poet laureate, James Merrill, viewed the post as an honor.  After accepting it, however, he was almost never heard of in that capacity again, preferring to concentrate on writing his own poetry.  Connecticut’s second poet laureate,  Leo Connellan, was an energetic laureate, working closely with students and others across the state.  He did such a dynamic job that Connecticut’s third poet laureate, Marilyn Nelson, complained at length during a recent AWP panel on state poet laureates that because of Connelli, the expectations of her were overly-high.  She had been hoping to be able to treat the job more as Merrill had, especially because of rapidly increasing successes in her own writing career.  

    The amount of work involved in these positions sometimes scares poets away from applying for them or allowing themselves to be nominated for them.  California had a great deal of trouble in filling its last poet laureate position.  Although the state is home to such big-name poets as Adrienne Rich, Sandra McPhereson, Gary Soto, Gary Snyder, Robert Hass and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, none of these heavy-weight poets applied for the position.  The search was actually mocked in various newspaper columns, and one satirist even wrote a popular “No California Poet Laureate Blues.” “The reason they’re having trouble,” Ferlinghetti has been quoted as saying, “is we’ve had a long tradition of the poet as defined by Plato’s Republic, the loyal opposition, a gadfly of the state.”  

    Ferlinghetti has also said that “Any sort of official position is a disaster for the creative person.”  His words turned out to be true for the poet finally picked for the position, Quincy Troupe.  Although a popular laureate, Troupe resigned after the state discovered that he did not have a Bachelors Degree from Grambling State University in Louisiana, even though his resume claimed he had.


    Gadflies such as Baraka, Troupe, and the anti-war poets may have put the future of these odd positions in danger.  Out of the forty one positions, only nine are vacant right now.  However, at a time when state budgets are being cut like mad, these might be easy positions for legislators to put on back-burners, especially if they are wary of potential political trouble brought on by volatile poets.  Because of Baraka and Trope’s experiences and because of complaints of high profile poets such as Marilyn Nelson, other potential state poet laureates too may become more wary of taking on the positions themselves.

    Adrienne Rich, one of the poets who did not apply for California’s laureate position, once turned down a medal from the National Endowment for the Arts because she disagreed with the Clinton administration’s politics.  In an essay entitled “Why I Refused the Medal for the Arts,” she writes, “There is no political leadership in the White House or the Congress that has spoken to and for the people who, in a very real sense, have felt abandoned by their government.”
It may be regrettable that Rich didn’t apply for the California laureate position.  Politically minded, enormously gifted, sane poets such as herself are the ones who would do the most dynamic, sociopolitically influential work in state poet laureate positions, speaking for and to the people who are usually unheard.

    At a time of great foreign and domestic upheaval such as America and the rest of the world is experiencing right now, when all viewpoints need to be heard before complicated political issues can be thoroughly considered and ethically weighed by legislators and their constituents, we need our poets. Our country needs people who are trained in expressing their viewpoints—whether liberal or conservative, sane or crazy, upsetting or soothing.  We need poets as brave as those in countries such as Russia, Iraq, Romania, and El Salvador.

    State poet laureateships are strange things, the “need” for them chuckled over like the “need” for state fish.  Yet laureates can use what little prestige is attached to their positions to draw attention to the social and political problems important to themselves and the other people in their states.  Now that a few of them have begun to get mainstream America’s attention, it should be time for state poet laureates to define their positions, and to figure out how they can use them to make poetry truly, actually matter.  

                                                                                Tanya Angell Allen

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