AP NEWS

Oh, wherefore art thou, poet of enchantment?

April 14, 2019

The study sat on the metaphorical shelf gathering metaphorical dust for nearly five nonmetaphorical years. But now that study has sprung to life — like a fresh simile.

I’m talking about a study by the state Department of Cultural Affairs of the feasibility of creating a position of state poet laureate. The study was mandated by two memorials in the 2014 Legislature sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, in the Senate and Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, in the House.

The study, which included input from “luminary New Mexico poets, relevant arts organizations, university faculty, and the community at large” included several recommendations on the duties of a state poet laureate, how he or she would be selected, the length of the official poet’s term, etc.

The bad news, though, was that the department determined in the 2014 study that there just wasn’t enough money to properly fund such a position. Instead, the study recommended the governor, Cultural Affairs and the state Arts Commission “work together to recognize a New Mexico poet each year, through the designation of a Governor’s Arts Award for Poetry.”

O’Neill, himself a published poet, never gave up on the idea of establishing a state poet laureate, whose mission, he envisions, would involve traveling to libraries and schools in all corners of the state to introduce, promote and “demystify” poetry, and show people how enriching poetry can be.

And this year, he was able to get a line item in an appropriations bill that allocates $107,000 a year to Cultural Affairs for a state poet laureate program.

The department will be responsible for determining the details of how exactly the poet laureate will be chosen and what exactly the position will entail. And that 2014 study provides a good framework for the program, O’Neill said.

The study said suggestions for the possible role and duties of a state poet laureate are numerous, “ranging from a minimum of making one official state appearance at the gubernatorial inauguration every four years, to making one official appearance annually, to conducting a significant number of educational programs in classrooms statewide, and engaging the public through statewide appearances throughout the year.”

I wonder who thought of the idea to have the poet laureate speak only at governors’ inaugurations. One poem every four years? Nice work if you can get it.

O’Neill noted that until now, New Mexico was one of very few states without a poet laureate. According to the Library of Congress’ website, there are five, including Michigan, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Of those, three used to have poet laureates. Poet Edgar A. Guest was Michigan’s from 1952 until his death in 1959. He was irreplaceable, I guess.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania both killed their laureate programs in 2003.

In Pennsylvania, Samuel Hazo had been the Keystone State’s top poet for 10 years when then-Gov. Ed Rendell, through an aide, informed Hazo that his “services were no longer needed,” according to a story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. That story quoted a press spokesman saying, “Gov. Rendell believes that all Pennsylvania poets should share the title of state poet.”

Everyone’s a winner.

And in New Jersey, then-Gov. Jim McGreevey pushed to abolish the position after a big controversy.

According to the Library of Congress, “New Jersey’s second poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, came under intense criticism after reading his poem, ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ at the September 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.” The poem contained anti-Semitic lines about the World Trade Center bombings, repeating the trope that thousands of Jews at the twin towers had been tipped off about the attack and stayed home from work on Sept. 11, 2001.

The poet refused McGreevey’s call for him to resign, the Library of Congress said. “When McGreevey attempted to fire Baraka, he found no provision in the law for removing a state poet laureate. Subsequently, on October 17, 2002, a bill was introduced to the New Jersey Senate that would eliminate the position of state poet laureate; it passed and became effective July 2, 2003.”

I believe that opening up the world of poetry to more people is a great idea. But I can’t help but wonder who would be New Mexico’s first poet laureate to create an outrage big enough to provoke calls for removal.