Category Archives: Poetry

County Poet Rejected for Writing Anti-War Poems

From the Boston Globe:

MAXWELL CORYDON Wheat Jr. was on his way to becoming the first poet laureate of New York’s Nassau County when county legislators realized he wrote not just about marshes and natural beauty, but also about war. The first verse of his poem “Iraq” reads:

“Males and one woman
sip coffee mornings in the White House,
talk of desires about Iraq.
For ten years
Less-than-Elected-Vice-President Cheney
evolves The Plan,
the Empire of the United States of America.”

The hearing on Wheat’s appointment erupted into an argument about supporting the troops. Nuance was lost. Tossing out this unruly poet, the unanimous choice of the nominating panel, came to seem like an act of valor.

Voted down by county legislators 6 to 1, Wheat nonetheless stands in the proud tradition of poets who write about war, an unflinching group who dip their pens into the worst of battle.

***

[C]ommunities in search of laureates should stop fooling themselves: Poets are largely not to be trusted with the work of comforting the comfortable.

Perhaps what some towns want instead is a publicist laureate or a cheerleader-in-chief, someone who puts out good news that rhymes or lights up a metaphor.

Poets won’t do for that job. Because poets, like Langston Hughes, won’t just let rivers be rivers; they freight them with sorrow and hope. Poets may hunt beauty, speculating as Walt Whitman does that maybe grass “is the handkerchief of the Lord,” or writing as Mary Oliver does that lilies are “like pale poles / with their wrapped beaks of lace,” but they almost never stop there. Poets also turn readers’ eyes to the rest of life, to jealousy, frustration, fear, loneliness, despair, and death.

It’s their job.

Only in Massachusetts: Moby Dick and the 40 Years’ Poetry War

I don’t usually write much about local news. Neither Dispatch nor Witness could be considered a Mass blog much less a Boston blog. My readers tend to range the globe, I suppose because I write about national news. But there are exceptions to every rule and this is one of them.

I live in west-central Mass, maybe an hour or so from Pittsfield in the Berkshires of western Mass. It’s unusual for anything we do out here in the boonies to attract the attention of easterners, so I perked right up when I saw this editorial in today’s Globe about my neck of the woods. And wouldn’t you know it? It concerned something that could likely only happen here.

We’re about to have a vicious fight over the naming of a State Book.

State birds we’re familiar with. State mottoes are often the bane of our existence. State animals have provoked legislative rumpuses of monumental proportions (making the mule the state animal of Missouri in the 90’s caused a rift in the Missouri lege that has yet to be healed). But a state book? Where else would they argue about something like that but the home of Harvard and Boston Univ and Boston College and Northeastern and Clark Univ and Smith and on and on and on? We have more colleges in this state than drive-in movies or topless car washes. If you count the state colleges – four of them within a half-hour of here, and I live in the sticks – we may have more institutions of higher learning than we have donut shops.

Which is why the proposal by Pittsfield State Rep Chris Speranzo to make Herman Melville’s Moby Dick the official Mass State Book is bound to ignite a firestorm of criticism and competing candidates. The Globe editors came up with a partial list that boggles the mind.

[L]et the debate begin. In Berkshire County itself, fans of Edith Wharton could make a case for any of the novels written while she lived in Lenox. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who temporarily lived in the Berkshires and socialized with Melville, will have advocates for “The Scarlet Letter” or “The House of the Seven Gables.” Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” will deserve a hearing as possibly the state’s most influential book. “The Poems of Emily Dickinson” has to be in the mix. The Pittsfield students admit that none had read “Moby-Dick” but some might have read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Bostonians will put in a vote for Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah” or George Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

A state as steeped in politics and history as this should also consider Henry Adams’s “The Education of Henry Adams,” John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” and the histories of Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and David McCullough. Roger Tory Peterson published his beloved “A Field Guide to the Birds” while a teacher in Brookline.

Granted this has just surfaced and no one is actually contesting Speranzo’s choice. Yet. But, as the Globe points out, in a state like this, a “donnybrook” is almost inevitable as soon as he makes the request on the House floor. It may already be in train after the publication of this editorial.

We take literature far more seriously than other states (with the possible exception of Minnesota, birthplace of F Scott Fitzgerald, which can’t seem to get over the fact that it once, a hundred years ago, sired a writer where cows ruled the Earth and the only thing St Paul was known for was its being too far up the Mississippi to be of interest to riverboat gamblers). Mass is a place where political contests (except in Southie, of course) usually generate less interest than your average tractor pull. Literature – especially locally grown literature – and where to get the best thin-crust pizza are the only two topics capable of starting a riot here (I understand that in NY, the Yankees/Mets dichotomy performs the same function).

If you believe I exaggerate, I call your attention to an event little known outside Mass but famous here as The 40 Years’ Poetry War of 1883-1924.

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Today’s Poem

Obviously, on he sails,
with marks not quite as good as Quayle’s.

–Calvin Trillin

A Poem for Our Time

I find it very difficult to enthuse;

Over the current news.

Just when you think that at least the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,

And that is why I do not like the news, because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.–Ogden Nash