For those who might think all things poetry equals boring, think again. We who chose our words with great thought are quite capable of sparking sharp discourse. There are a couple of excellent examples of this going on right now in full public view.
On the national scene there is the ongoing and seemingly unending friction over a $200 million gift to Poetry Magazine by Ruth Lilly, the 94 year old reclusive philanthropist and drug heiress who died this past week. The basic story is old news to most poets, but the death of Ms. Lilly seems to have drawn media attention back to it by as evidenced by a series of new articles that have appeared in print these last few days.
For an art form often marginalized, such a gift was both shockingly exciting and on some level a bit difficult to rationalize. The Poetry Foundation which publishes Poetry Magazine is operated by a staff of four. It has a circulation of 12,000 and an annual operating budget of about $700.000 which makes such a gift seem a bit like overkill. But for many, it’s not so much the gift as it is the administration of the Foundation that has been the focus of discussion. Some, including a former trustee have been critical of the foundation’s expenditure of $25 million to build a “Home for Poetry” in Chicago. John Barr , the director has also been criticized for giving his wife a job at the Foundation. Complaints have reached the Illinois Attorney General who is looking into "questionable governance and management practices."
Back in my home state, the selection of a second Poet Laureate have has brought some criticism of the Governor’s office who has posted an application for the position that looks more like they are searching for a CEO of a fortune 500 Company than an ambassador for an art. It asks for instance to: “Please provide any other information, including information about other members of your family, which could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the Governor” and “Is there anything in your or your spouse’s background that might become an embarrassment to you if it were to become public? Please consider carefully any letters to the editor, blog posts, etc., which you or your spouse may have authored, even anonymously.” It also asks about associations with other individuals which might be a source of embarrassment. I’ve not personally seen applications used in other states, but according to a January 2nd Columbia Tribune article, “Application forms for poets laureate in other states do not ask similar questions.” The same article notes several individuals have expressed disappointment about such approach to the search and at least on poet with national accolades that said he was not interested in applying with these terms.
The outgoing Poet Laureate Walter Bargen, said he was not asked to fill out an application but he and his wife did agree to a State Highway Patrol background check. He was asked if there was anything they should know about. Bergen to them, “I grew up in the ‘60s,” and that he once used the world “nipple” in a poem.