Stateline Story

States Find a Place for Poetry in Politics

  • December 23, 2003
  • By Erin Madigan

They're named by their governors and represent their states, but America's state poets laureate say they're not hindered by party lines. They write as they see fit. Even though they sometimes pay for it.

Or as Vermont's feisty Grace Paley put it in defending a controversial fellow poet laureate who lost his job: "He can say any damn thing he wants and so can I."

"These are strong, accomplished, talented people. They're not going to be anybody's mouthpiece," said Katie Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Writer's Project, which sponsored the first meeting of the states' top poets in April 2003.

The position of state poet laureate is relatively low profile in the 33 states that have one. The length of appointment, compensation and duties vary greatly from state to state, and it's largely an "honorific" position, said David Kresh, a poetry reference specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Kresh said the number of states appointing honorary poets is growing, due in large part to the influence of popular national poets laureate such as Maya Angelou, Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins.

The most recent state to name a poet laureate is Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Kevin Stein, a professor at Bradley University in Peoria, just this month.

"It's just kind of boom-time for poetry in this country," Kresh said.

Those who hold the title of state poet laureate say they're charged with promoting their craft and culture in their state. They often read poems to elementary school students and senior citizens, but they also appear before their legislatures and at gubernatorial inaugurations.

They're both artists and emissaries of state government. So, Stateline.org asked a few of the poets themselves, what's the role of poetry in politics?

"I don't think poetry plays any role in politics, but I do think the poet's voice is one of the many heard on political issues, in the largest sense of the word politics,'" said Marie Harris, poet laureate in New Hampshire. "A poet's voice is often raised in dissent, or at least criticism. I think that's a valid and necessary role for the artist to play."

There are times when a poet's artistic voice can clash with the government's views.

Just last July, the New Jersey Legislature stripped Amiri Baraka-- only the second poet laureate in the state's history -- of his post and eliminated his position after Baraka read what many charged was an anti-Semitic poem about Sept. 11 titled, Somebody Blew Up America.

The action angered Paley, a longtime peace activist and the poet laureate in Vermont, who said she disagreed with Baraka's poem but was angry about the New Jersey government's swift retaliation.

"They had no right to try to get rid of him. He can say any damn thing he wants and so can I," she told Stateline.org in an interview.

Paley, 81, is no stranger to politics. Besides protesting and writing poems against the war in Iraq, she has recently garnered attention in her home state for endorsing Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I like (Howard) Dean. Dean was our governor here, but (Kucinich) may be the only true political person in the whole United States who really says what he thinks and really thinks clearly about the politics of the country and where we're going," Paley said.

Paley, who was described by one colleague as a "real firecracker," told current Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas when he appointed her in the spring of 2003 that she would always say what she thought, even if it clashed with his Republican politics.

Another poet laureate who's mixed his post with politics is North Dakota's Larry Woiwode. Appointed in 1995, the poet and novelist actually read poems during his campaign for a Republican seat in the Statehouse in 1998. He came up unsuccessful.

"I don't feel there's any politics in the office itself. I've never felt any kind of political pressure to write any kind of poem for anybody," he told Stateline.org. Woiwode, who plans to visit and read poetry at every high school in the state during 2004, said he's been asked to read an original poem for the inauguration of Republican Gov. John Hoeven if he's re-elected. Hoeven's term ends in January 2005.

Another poet laureate made headlines in California in 2003. Professor and poet Quincy Troupe resigned as state laureate when it came to light that he'd lied on his resume about graduating from college, the Library of Congress's Kresh said.

And in Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) appointed a laureate in November only to discover the state already had one. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Huckabee ousted poet Verna Hinegardner, 84, who was appointed in 1991 by then-Gov. Bill Clinton (D) and thought she'd serve as state laureate until her death.