by Jim Harris
On June 7, 2012, Natasha Trethewey became the 19th Poet Laureate of the U.S. It goes without saying (although I will say it anyway) that I was forlorn, nay, crestfallen at the unmitigated, humiliating, incomprehensible, debilitating, Metamucil injustice of it all.
It should have been yours truly. I’ve spent the last 12 months lobbying the Washington poetry circuit around the Capitol Beltway, collecting IOUs and reading my poems and limericks at open mikes, block parties, car washes, anywhere I could find an audience. My idea of great poetry is: “I need not go boldly where none has gone before; When I take such strolls, my wife gets quite sore.”
After I came up with the line, “Marriage is the mourning after the knot before,” I thought I had the appointment locked up, but I guess I just didn’t grease all the right palms. Oh well, as Andy Reid always says, maybe next year.
Since 1985, the official title for the position has been “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” Prior to that (from 1937 to 1984), it was called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” In the 19th century, a poet was called a “bohemian,” and in colonial times, “The Village Idiot.”
The exact origins of the term “Poet Laureate” are in dispute. Some say it dates back to the 16th century Scottish poet, Sir Malcolm Laurie, who was a friend of King Henry VII. According to legend, whenever the king was in need of a snappy verse or two, he would bellow, “Where’s that poet Laurie at?” (My own favorite line from Laurie is this one: “The other day I sent my girlfriend a huge pile of snow. I rang her up and asked, ‘Did you get my drift?’”)
Others attribute the title to more modern roots. American cowboys would often do rope tricks while reciting their poems around the campfire. When one speaker was done, he would pass the lasso to the next person, who would then be the center of attention. It therefore became customary that when a cowpoke wanted to get a poetry reading going, he would yell, “Where’s the poet lariat?”
Now I am aware that many readers think puns are undignified and certainly not worthy to be included in fine poetry, but no less a poet than the legendary John Donne, whose poetry was certainly well donne, would not have agreed. Donne often punned his name in his own poetry. In one of his hymns, he even puns the name of his wife Anne More, with the line “Thou hast not done, For I have more.” (And did you hear about the optometrist who fell into a lens grinder and made a spectacle of himself? Well, John Donne never heard about it, either.)
Whatever the origins of the office of Poet Laureate, it is a much sought-after position today. The U.S. Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, who in turn is appointed by the President himself, so this gig veritably reeks with prestige. It only pays a “modest” $40,000 annually, but to a poet, that’s like professional quarterback pay. But don’t get excited, Tea Partiers, no government money is used. The position is funded by a private gift from Archer M. Huntington, who’s been dead for 50 years, but is nonetheless still rich.
The Poet Laureate is provided with a spacious office in the beautiful Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. It is visited by many poets from across the country and around the world — most of them asking to borrow money. The Library of Congress “keeps to a minimum the specific duties of the Poet Laureate in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library.”
So hypothetically, a person holding the office could just hide in a closet and drink whiskey all day, and that would be fine. In fact, that would be expected of a poet. But if he or she were to, say, punch a police officer or run naked through the halls of Congress, something like that could be grounds for impeachment (or at least for laughter).
I propose that, rather than have the Poet Laureate be some hack appointee, there should be a TV show, “America’s Next Poet Laureate,” where the viewers would get to vote for their favorite bard. I can see it now; here’s Joe Shmedlap, an auto mechanic from Rhubarb, Arkansas, who says he’s been secretly writing poetry since he was 6 years old.
Everyone snickers as Joe takes the stage in his Gomer Pyle overalls, but when he opens his mouth, elegant, exquisite free verse comes cascading out. Everyone cries, and a new champion is crowned. Of course there would be some really bad poets, too, whom the celebrity judges could insult for big guffaws.
I’m sure that the more scholarly poets out there find my ideas and opinions offensive. In fact, I have already received several rhyming insults on my voicemail. Some of them were pretty good, actually, especially the one in Latin that called me “Harris Vulgaris.” My response to them is: Keep in mind that madness takes its toll, so please have exact change.