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Tonsils are optional, as are wisdom teeth, motorcycle helmets, and flan. The state bird, the state tree, the state mushroom, the state photograph, and the state muffin are all options the State of Minnesota, in its exuberance, has picked up. Yes, Minnesota has a state muffin (blueberry), and conveniently a state drink (milk) to accompany said muffin. But given our collective civic spirit and near-pathological state pride, one might wonder why we've stopped there. Why not a state worm or a state cloud or a state flammable material? Why not add a state poet laureate to the list?
The Library of Congress, which reigns over the national poet laureate, maintains that he or she serves as the "official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans." Since 1986 when Robert Penn Warren was appointed the nation's first versifier-in-chief, poets laureate, as they're sometimes called, have emerged in droves. Two-thirds of the states, innumerable towns and cities, and at least two boroughs of New York have sworn in bards. In a recent interview with Canada's Globe and Mail, Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, said, "We're going kind of poet-laureate crazy at this point. It's watered down to cities having poets laureate, and counties. A young boy came up and introduced himself and said he was the poet laureate of his middle school."
Thus far the Gopher State has avoided this ever-widening swath of craziness.
Minnesota's first poet laureate, Margarette Ball Dickson, crowned herself queen bee of poesy in 1934. She promptly informed Gov. Floyd Olson and he sensibly went along. Forty years later, Laurene Tibbetts became Minnesota's second lady of the line break, designated Minnesota Commissioner of Poetry by the governor. However, legislation introduced to make the position official was never passed. As a result, Tibbetts was recognized as the unofficial poet laureate by the Library of Congress, which is sort of like not being recognized at all.
Since Tibbetts's shady reign ended with her death in 2000, the laureateship has floundered in a sea of inertia. But one legislator has kept the idea alive, Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis). According to Mark Gleason, director of the Minnesota Center for the Book, Kahn, in 2001, "asked mhc [Minnesota Humanities Commission] to conduct a survey and develop a proposal for a poet laureate." Unfortunately, Gleason adds, "By the time the survey and proposal were complete in 2002, foundation funding dried up and the Poet Laureate plan went on the shelf."
Undeterred, this past April, Kahn and a handful of fellow legislators introduced a bill that called for the governor to appoint a poet laureate. Among the co-authors was the poesy-prone Rep. John Lesch (dfl-St. Paul) who introduced the bill with a poem of his own titled "Appointment of Poet Laureate." (The highlight of Lesch's poem was his "muffin-toughen" rhyme.) The bill itself was written in rhymed verse:
With no insult intended to Lesch or the other House bards: Resignation seems unlikely.The poet will be free to write rhyming lines,
With removal only for cause,
But we trust that the bard will promptly resign,
If the verse reads as badly as laws.
Politics and poetry make downright freaky bedfellows, and one need not wonder who's on top. Legislators awash in red ink and wary of political backlash are reluctant to appropriate funds for programs that might be perceived as superfluous.
But appropriating nothing to the office isn't too risky and it's not uncommon. Neither Marvin Bell, poet laureate of Iowa, nor Larry Woiwode, who holds the title in North Dakota, receives a salary. Woiwode proclaims, with the righteous fire of someone not getting paid, "The poet laureate is not a hired hack."
Bell, one of the most respected poets serving as poet laureate--many of these honorees, we might say, are obscure--explains, "I was told the legislature approved the position on one condition: that it not cost any money."
A poet laureate is part state bird, part vice president (providing the vice president doesn't live in a bunker). Like the loon and the veep, most laureates have few, if any, official duties, besides being that metaphorical lightning rod. Bell and Woiwode have none. Marilyn Taylor, the poet laureate of Milwaukee, has "no specific assignments other than to present two major readings." All poet laureates at least occasionally read and speak at schools, colleges, retirement homes, and bookstores.
While politicians kiss babies, poet laureates entertain requests for commemorative poems. Sometimes the requests are downright bizarre. Bell may have accepted one of the least glamorous commissions in modern poetic history. He recounts the details: "A gentleman donating urinals to the University of Pennsylvania asked all the poet laureates to write poems for the occasion. He enclosed a check for $100 with his request." Depending on one's sense of humor, political orientation, and bank balance, one either rises to the occasion or flushes. "I liked his moxie and did it," Bell says, though he reports that "most of the poems written for the occasion were so-so."
Some versifiers haul a trailerful of new initiatives into the office. Others have more modest goals. To some extent, America hasn't figured out what it wants from its poets in general and its poets laureate specifically. Whether the laureate speaks for poets, poetry, or the public isn't entirely clear. North Dakota's Wiowode believes that he writes for "all three--but perhaps mostly for the citizenry." Iowa's Bell thinks the poet laureate "represents poetry and poets." Milwaukee's Taylor adds, "I speak for poetry." The varying opinions suggest that the laureateship is both a malleable thing and a work in progress.
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