Bookmark: N.C. poet laureate brouhaha reminds us poetry matters

  • Updated: August 2, 2014 - 2:00 PM

During her two terms as poet laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey kept office hours at the Library of Congress so that people who wanted to chat with a real live poet could chat with her.

As poet laureate of Minnesota, Joyce Sutphen crisscrosses the state, giving talks, visiting schools, judging competitions, hosting visiting poets. And as poet laureate of St. Paul, Carol Connolly hosts monthly readings at the University Club, raises money and enthusiasm for sidewalk poetry and continues to write and give readings herself.

I wonder what Valerie Macon would have done — if anything — if she had served her term as poet laureate of North Carolina instead of resigning after six days. Not that I blame her for quitting; she was in way over her head. Macon works in that state’s Department of Health and Human Services and has few literary credentials beyond self-publishing a couple of books.

She was not chosen through a thoughtful vetting process, but was appointed perhaps a bit offhandedly by Gov. Pat McCrory, who said later he had been trying to get away from “elite groups” — presumably, established poets who write, publish and teach.

The outcry, as you can imagine, was loud and furious. Macon was cruelly mocked on the website Gawker, and thoroughly examined (and rightfully so) by the Raleigh News & Observer.

The situation raises larger questions: What is a poet? And what must a poet do to rise to the level of laureate?

Even though books of poetry generally do not sell well (Billy Collins and Mary Oliver notwithstanding), and even though it is nearly impossible to make a living as a full-time poet (Robert Bly notwithstanding), and even though hardly anyone in the real world reads poetry (other poets notwithstanding), as a culture we — perhaps oddly — revere poetry. We take it seriously.

Poetry holds an important place in a civilized society. People are moved to seek out a poem or even write one of their own, God bless them, to mark a significant passage in life. Poetry is read at inaugurals, funerals and weddings; it carries gravitas. Poet laureate is a distinguished position, and the appointment should respect the art.

The objections to McCrory’s choice were not just to whom he chose, but how he chose her, bypassing the North Carolina Arts Commission, which in the past has made recommendations. It was McCrory’s indifference that riled so many, as though he were saying that all poets are the same, that poetry doesn’t really matter.

Caught in the middle of all this was poor Valerie Macon, probably a very nice woman, someone who foolishly let this accidental honor go to her head and said yes. It’s best for all that she had the grace to change her mind and slip back to the road she was meant to travel by.

Laurie Hertzel is on Twitter @StribBooks.

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