Poetry Slam

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.

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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 trust.

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 purposes.

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 properly cited.

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