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LETTER: The case against government poets (i.e., Poet Laureates)

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Instead of knee-jerk praise, why not question the very idea of a poet laureate of St. John’s or anywhere else for that matter? Sadly, the press seems to do anything but that.

Instead of offering vital critique, it praises poets and does not wish to examine what literary anointment by government officials really implies.

“Tracy K. Smith, America’s Poet Laureate, Travels the Country to Ignite Our Imaginations,” for example, illustrates such unquestioning praise.

Today, poets are more likely to be eager careerists — literary, academic or both — seeking recognition and all the perks that go with it (e.g., prizes, awards, invitations, tenure, and laureate anointments), rather than being bold truth-tellers.

British poet Lord Byron was highly critical of the poet laureate (Robert Southey) of his day: “Fed, paid, and pampered by the very men / By whom his muse and morals had been mauled: / He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose, / And more of both than anybody knows.” And recall what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. […] I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.”

Now, why would city councilors (i.e., politicians) even want to anoint a poet? For the tourist industry? To help inflate or promote interest in literature? If so, what kind of literature? Poetry apt to criticize city councilors or the tourist industry and its literary festivals? Why would the councilors select one poet, Mary Dalton, over others? Why were there only three applications for the poet-laureate position for St. John’s? Are there only three poets in that city? What were the requisites? After all, poetry is not an objective science. Poems that I like might be poems that you don’t like, and vice versa.

Was recognition by the academic/literary establishment one of those requisites? No doubt! And Dalton, as Memorial University English professor and founder/past director of the SPARKS Literary Festival, evidently satisfied that requisite.

But intellectual corruption is generally endemic in higher education and likely fostered by the clear disdain professors of literature generally tend to have for criticism with their regard. Indeed, criticize them, as I do here, and be prepared not for vigorous debate, cornerstone of a thriving democracy, but rather for silence and/or ostracizing from literary festivals. Freedom of speech is not really a cornerstone of academe at all. But shouldn’t it be a cornerstone of poetry?

Shouldn’t poets employed by universities stand as bold truth-tellers and openly criticize the very universities feeding them so well? Truth vs. career. The press, poets, and professors, rather than always admiring the award-prize-fellowship-grant winners, ought to instead pose a few questions. Who were the judges? What were their biases? What were the unwritten taboos? What kind of poetry might be prohibited? Poetry criticizing the academic/literary establishment? Counter that taboo would of course be counter-productive career-wise and would certainly not lead to an eventual poet-laureate anointment.

Thus, the old Southey quandary: the poet as safe, literary careerist or the poet as rude truth-teller?

Finally, as a poet, I have heeded Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine” and thus have actively tested the waters of democracy many times in the realm of academe and literature. Those waters have inevitably proven over and again to be shamefully murky both in the U.S. and Canada. As an invited and well-remunerated poet, for example, at the Festival International de la Poésie de Trois-Rivières in Quebec (2001), I was the only one out of 150 such invited poets to stand and openly criticize the organizers for banning debate regarding poetry at the festival. For that, I was never again invited back. “You’re going to criticize yourself right out of the hearts of all people in all countries,” said a friend. “I know. You don’t care.”

In essence, that would make me the antithesis of a poet laureate, that is, a poet with the courage to express openly that which he perceives.

G. Tod Slone

Barnstable, Ma.

Related story:

Mary Dalton named City of St. John’s poet laureate

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