Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Balancing Act

The public clamoring for community poet laureates is on the rise. Almost at an unbelievable clip. Kind of like the Dow Jones average climbing higher and higher on a graph. This has of course given poets and poetry a much higher public profile in recent years. Not only do we have a U.S. poet laureate, but many states, cities and even smaller municipalities are crowning their own as well.

This of course affords these entities someone in an official capacity to represent the community at significant community and or public events and these individuals are often called upon to recite a poem that relates to the community or the occasion that is being acknowledged. Often the poet may write something specific for the occasion.

But poets are a rare breed. And to ask a poet to speak at a public gathering and use their talent to express imagery and emotion can be like striking a match to a stick of dynamite. That is because poets tend to pull from the deepest pool of their inner-self. Therein lies a rich honesty that not all may like.

Last week, the poet Nikki Giovanni was asked to recite at a dedication in Cincinnati and her poem I am Cincinnati was emotionally and politically charged. Her poem struck out at some politicians and was laced with language that raised a lot of eyebrows. I suspect it would have been impossible for Giovanni to have addressed the crowd on this occasion with, shall we say etiquette and social grace; and at the same time remain true to herself. Given this choice to balance, I believe more times than not, a poet is going to remain true to themselves.

There are many instances of poets whose words have fallen on disfavor of certain segments of the public. The poet Amiri Baraka, for example , who was fired as poet laureate of New Jersey after his words in a poem on 9-11 were upsetting to some.

The juxtaposition created by the growing desire for very public and "official" poetry on one hand and the sometimes resulting unhappiness with content of publicly read poems creates an interesting dilemma for the poets and the community at large.

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