The North Carolina Poet Laureate Question

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This article is the first in a two-part series. 

On July 11, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory appointed Valerie Macon to the office of state poet laureate. As Macon was unknown to almost everyone in the state, the appointment came as a general surprise, and not the good kind. It was the kind that brings out the worst in otherwise respectable, benevolent folks. “Why her?” was one repeated response. “How did this happen?” was another. “We stand for excellence,” responded the NC Writers’ Network, and Valerie Macon “does not have a body of work comparable in size or recognition to those of our past laureates.” In fact, she has accomplished nothing greater than to hire a company to publish two “chapbooks” (short collections) of her work. Less than a week later, vitriolic discussion having expanded to the national stage, she resigned. But the furor around this has raised a larger question: Why do states and nations appoint poet laureates in the first place?

For one thing, we like to honor those who have proven to be, appear to be, or have the reputation for being the best at what they do. This is true from kindergarten through career retirement. It's satisfying to officially recognize individuals who have excelled at something and to participate in a history of such recognition. One of the first fixtures visible in most high school hallways is a large glass case full of trophies, photographs, and certificates. These items are enshrined behind glass—sacred, in a sense. They aren’t to be touched, only observed and admired. Amazing how many of our public narratives are about extreme success, and not only obvious examples like Amadeus and Chariots of Fire but The Social NetworkOcean’s ElevenStand and Deliver, and even The Silence of the Lambs. We like to know who’s so good at what they do that they have become almost legendary. Poet laureate appointments are one way we know this.

Also, because we don’t always agree on or even understand what’s going on in a particular art form such as poetry, we appreciate leadership. If we don’t understand the value of Sappho’s fragments (two of which were recently discovered in a mummy’s wrappings) or why Ezra Pound’s polyglot Cantos are important to the history of poetry, let alone what our current experimental poets are writing, we do acknowledge governmental authority. A government appointing a poet laureate both confirms the art and suggests hope that it’s for everyone, not merely an educated coterie. A poet laureate can be like a professor, in that sense, evangelizing a range of students on a murky, difficult subject like calculus or cultural anthropology. A poet laureate serves as a gatekeeper.

A third reason is that we still connect poetry and the arts as a whole to passion. In a society dominated by consumer products and commercial interests, one in which many of us live paycheck to paycheck, we associate poets with something we lost along the way and wish our children could have: vision, emotion, conviction. And we connect poetry to culture. Like opera or art galleries, poetry is something we feel we ought to at least know about. We appoint poet laureates so that someone will be actively bringing poetry not only to official occasions but to schools, nursing homes, and other public assemblies. Perhaps by exposure to a visiting writer or artist our communities will become reinvigorated. As most of us feel unqualified to lead that sort of programming, we get experts to do it for us. 

But in America the notion of expertise, especially regarding poetry, tends to make people testy. Since Whitman, there has been a sense that poetry is of the people and for the people, and who are you to tell me I’m not a poet? Valerie Macon’s resignation letter strikes this egalitarian chord. So how should we select a poet laureate? On what terms ought we accord honor to not only poets but other sorts of artists? I’ll take up these questions in the next “Poetry and Politics” on August 11. Stay tuned. . .

- Aaron Belz has published three volumes of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) and Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). He is the poet laureate of Hillsborough, North Carolina.