Bob Southey! You’re a poet, poet laureate,
And representative of all the race.
Although ‘tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
My politics as yet are all to educate.
Apostasy’s so fashionable too,
To keep one creed’s a task grown quite Herculean.
Is it not so, my Tory, ultra-Julian?
-Lord Byron, Dedication of "Don Juan"
A still-pending bill introduced last June would establish an official
Michigan poet laureate. While many state residents may fervently appreciate
literature and ardently support poetry in particular, designating a poet as the
state’s literary mascot may be perceived by these same people as a serious waste
of our public officials’ time and taxpayer money — not to mention fraught with
potential problems as indicated in the above assertion against England’s poet
laureate Robert Southey by Lord Byron.
House Bill 4890 would allow the
governor to select a Michigan resident as poet laureate to serve at his or her
pleasure. It’s clear that the sponsor, Rep. Bruce Caswell, R-Pittsford, is
concerned about costs as the proposed position would not be compensated and also
would be exempt from civil service guidelines, although it does allow for
reimbursement of costs necessary for undertaking official duties.
Although the relative costs would
be somewhat minimal should the bill pass and become law, in a state experiencing
a recession and endless budget woes they are important nonetheless. Spending
time and effort on something that is so nonessential is clearly a waste. There
already has been, and is likely to be more, legislative staff time spent
drafting and reviewing this bill. The annual cost for the Legislature last year
was $113.9 million — or about $167,000 per law passed and $5,400 per bill
introduced — and while this bill is likely not to approach those averages, any
amount of time spent on unnecessary legislation is an abuse of the public’s
There are competing views over
the role of government participating in the larger culture. As far as precedence
is concerned, Michigan government has largely abstained from having an active
role in the arts, nor should such things be within its scope. Its only direct
involvement is acting as a passive check writer in an arts subsidy program. The
state should not impose itself on artistic tastes by declaring one poet, or type
of poetry, to speak for everyone.
Other states have laureates
outside of government declaration. In Minnesota, until last year, people were
crowned poet laureate by newspapers, local magazines and arts organizations.
Until 2005 in Indiana, the poet laureate was designated by the Indiana State
Federation of Poetry Clubs.
Even if a poet laureate position
could be created immediately with a wave of a legislative wand, without costing
taxpayers’ money and legislators’ time, the proposed designation opens the door
to what Byron would attack as the veneration of a likely hack for political
If there ever is a poet who truly
represents all things Michigan, it’s not likely that crowning him or her poet
laureate by gubernatorial designation would be necessary. The designation of a
poet laureate would indicate that said poet would "represent" in today’s
parlance for literature, at public functions, libraries and schools — as well as
write poems for special state occasions.
Because poetry encompasses both
high and low art — think of the wide berth that exists between T.S. Eliot and
Ogden Nash — determining what type of poet most accurately reflects Michigan
would be difficult. For example, our state has been home to several famous
poets, but perhaps none of them are truly representative. On one hand there is
Edgar Guest, who is most remembered for one phrase — "It takes a heap o’livin’
in a house t’ make it home" — despite having published an original poem (some
would say doggerel) each day for several decades in the Detroit Free Press.
On the other hand, Michigan
boasts Jim Harrison, who is among the finest poets writing in the United States
despite lacking immediate appeal for most readers without an English degree; in
any event, Harrison spends much of his time outside Michigan. Thomas Lynch might
be another worthy candidate, although some may cringe at his many references to
his day job as an undertaker. And what of rap lyrics, which are increasingly
classified along with rock lyrics as poetry? Michigan native Eminem certainly
appeals to younger, hip audiences, but are his messages of matricide and rape
something a responsible elected official would wish to validate? Or even Bob
Seger, whose most poignant lyrics are perhaps contained within the song "Night
Moves," which is essentially about emotionally detached adolescent sex?
If the state’s legislators
determine we need to honor poetry in the state, we could look to the roster of
the state’s departed writers for commemoration: John Ciardi and Theodore Roethke
immediately come to mind. Both writers have been accepted into the literary
canon as proven by the appearance of much of their work in anthologies and
school curricula. True, they’re not immediately available for personal
appearances or writing "occasional" poems, but their work has been historically
validated and they probably won’t mind that they would receive no remuneration.
James M. Hohman is a fiscal policy
research assistant and Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the
Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and the Center are