So you wake up one morning and "poof" you're the poet laureate. Okay, it didn't quite happen that way. First you get a call from out of the blue and you mull the offer around in your crowded head, bounce the idea off family and finally call back and say, "yes, I'll do it."
Then comes that fateful morning when you realize "you are it!" This has come and passed for Charles Simic. So what's going on with him?
For all the fan fair and hoop-la about raising the interest in poetry in this country by recent past laureates, Simic is not as passionately optimistic. He views Americans as a people who are not particularly proud of our literature and he is not inclined to believe you can force the issue. Oh, I'll admit that a part of me wants to be more idealistic about the picture than that, but perhaps Simic is more reality grounded here. At any point, we all really do know that the evangelism of poetry is not going to bring everyone the their knees in verse.
If I were asked to do a state of the union on poetry, I believe first of all, not a lot of people would tune in. There is a large segment of society who really could care less. Still, for a good many people poetry remains a valued commodity. And like the American economy, the leading indicators here are truly mixed.
It seems fewer presses are turning out poetry. Yet we are seeing poetry all over the Internet. There are few economic success stories among contemporary poets, yet MFA programs are everywhere. To be sure, there are a significant number of people who do in fact turn to poetry, but it is also true that this is a representatively low percentage of the American public. Simic is right, as a nation we do not proud of our literature, poetry or otherwise. Our interests are splintered and divided among so many possibilities it is like vying a piece of the Nielsen ratings.
Of course I want to see poetry promoted. And I am already pleased to know from things Simic has said that he is not about to set out to define what poetry is or should be to readers or poets. To create "ramps for poetically handicapped people" (borrowing a phrase from Billy Collins) is not going to bring America to some profound awakening about poetry. The best we can do is to support the art, gain exposure for it, and let it reach those who are receptive to it.
Simic is in his own right a very talented poet. I believe he can be a outstanding ambassador for the art. Like everyone else, we'll have to set back and give him time to develop his methodology.