Post Number: 69
|Posted on Tuesday, February 23, 2010 - 09:54 am: ||
I have recently been listening to the pronouncements of various California poets laureate: California, San Francisco, Sonoma County. There are of course many other poets laureate—sometimes inaccurately designated as poet laureates. (Mother in law / mothers in law; poet laureate / poets laureate.) Over the past ten or fifteen years, many American poets have been made poet laureate of one place or another. What are they expected to do? For the poet, it is a chance to experience a little more media attention than usual—almost always a pleasant thing for a poet. And the post will perhaps boost the sales of his/her books.
But I want to begin with the somewhat checkered history of this ancient post. Here are some excerpts from the admirable Wikipedia article on the subject. Comments in brackets are by me.
A Poet Laureate (plural: Poets Laureate) is a poet officially appointed by a government and is often expected to compose poems for State occasions and other government events.
In the United Kingdom the term has for centuries been the title of the official poet of the monarch, since the time of Charles II. Poets laureate are appointed by many countries. In Britain there is also a Children’s Laureate.
In ancient Greece the laurel was sacred to the god Apollo, and was used to form a crown or wreath of honour for poets and heroes. This custom has since become widespread, both in fact and as a metaphor. The word laureate or laureated thus came in English to signify eminence or association with glory (cf. Nobel laureate). Laureate letters were once the despatches announcing a victory. The term laureate became associated with degrees awarded by European universities (the term baccalaureate for the degree of bachelor reflects this idea). As a royal degree in rhetoric, poet laureate was awarded at European universities in the Middle Ages. The term might also refer to the holder of such a degree, which recognized skill in rhetoric, grammar and language.
According to the historian Edward Gibbon, Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–74) of Rome, perhaps best known for his sonnets to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Laura, took the title of “poet laureate” [Laura/ laurel] in 1341.
From the more general use of the term "poet laureate" arose its restriction in England to an official office of Poet Laureate, attached to the royal household. James I essentially created the position as it is known today for Ben Jonson in 1617, although Jonson’s appointment does not seem to have been formally made. The office was a development from the practice of earlier times when minstrels and versifiers formed part of the King’s retinue. Richard Coeur de Lion had a versificator Regis (King’s Poet), Gulielmus Peregrinus, and Henry III had a versificator named (Master Henry) [sic]. In the 15th century, John Kay, also a “versifier,” described himself as Edward IV’s “humble poet laureate.”
No single authentic definitive record exists of the office of Poet Laureate of England. According to Wharton, Henry I paid 10 shillings a year to a Versificator Regis. Geoffrey Chaucer 1340–1400 was called Poet Laureate, being granted in 1389 an annual allowance of wine. W. Hamilton classes Chaucer, Gower, Kay, Andrew Bernard, Skelton, Robert Whittington, Richard Edwards, and Samuel Daniel, as “volunteer Laureates.”
John Skelton studied at Oxford University in the early 1480s, and was advanced to the degree of “poet laureate” in 1488. The title of laureate was also conferred on him by the University of Louvain in 1492, and by Cambridge University in 1492–3. He soon became famous for rhetoric, satire and translations. In 1488 Skelton joined the court of Henry VII, tutored Henry VIII and was the official royal poet for most of the next 40 years. He was held in high esteem: “But I pray mayster John Skelton, late created poete laureate in the unyversite of Oxenforde, to oversee and correct this sayd booke”— Caxton in the preface to The Boke of Eneydos compyled by Vargyle 1490.
The title of Poet Laureate, as a royal office, was first conferred by letters patent on John Dryden in 1670…. The post then became a regular institution. Dryden’s successor Shadwell originated annual birthday and New Year odes. The poet laureate became responsible for writing and presenting official verses to commemorate both personal occasions, such as the monarch’s birthday or royal births and marriages, and public occasions, such as coronations and military victories…The salary has varied, but traditionally includes some alcohol.
The United States Library of Congress has since 1937 appointed an official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. An Act of Congress changed the name of the position in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. [William McGuire’s excellent book, Poetry’s Catbird Seat gives the history of the Consultant in Poetry post through 1987.] A number of the American states’ legislatures have created official government positions which are occupied by poets who are prominent either locally, nationally, or sometimes both.
On June 17, 2008, the Library of Congress announced Kay Ryan as the country's sixteenth Poet Laureate. Laureates receive a US$35,000 stipend and are given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a vague charge to promote poetry. No other duties are specified, and laureates are not required to compose for government events or in praise of government officials. However, after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the Poet Laureate then in office, Billy Collins, was asked to write a poem to be read in front of a special joint session of Congress. Collins wrote “The Names,” which he read on September 6, 2002, which is available in streaming audio and video. When the $35,000 stipend was originally instituted, the amount was quite large and was intended to allow the poet laureate to abandon worries about earning a living and devote his or her time entirely to writing poetry. That amount has remained the same over the years, so the intent of making it a nice living for a poet is no longer being fulfilled. Now it functions as a bonus for a poet who usually is teaching at a university and earns the bulk of his or her living that way.
Previous U.S. Poets Laureate have included Charles Simic, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, Joseph Brodsky, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Hass, Donald Hall, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, and Maxine Kumin, among others.
Thus Wikipedia. In this kingless country, what is the duty of the versificator Regis? As the Wikipedia article makes clear, it is not necessarily to promote the politicians who have appointed the poet but in a general sense to “promote poetry”—the “vague charge” mentioned by Wikipedia. Every one of the poets laureates I listened to has a plan to “bring poetry to the people”—and particularly to young people. These plans usually involving teaching, getting the students to write something—to “express themselves,” etc.
What is the function of a poet? The god Apollo’s laurel tree is the source of the notion of the “laureate,” but how exactly has the god’s poet laureate earned his/her leaf? This is Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos.” It is Rilke’s version of the deep experience of this ancient (“Archaïscher”) god. First the original German:
Wir kannten nich sein unerhötes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nich ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
und bräche nicht aus allen seinem Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
Next, two rather different translations of the poem, both, like Rilke’s original, rhymed; the first is by Stephen Mitchell, the second by C.F. MacIntyre:
ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so,
nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not gleam like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.
TORSO OF AN ARCHAIC APOLLO
Never will we know his fabulous head
where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows: a candelabrum set
before his gaze which is pushed back and hid,
restrained and shining. Else the curving breast
could not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn
of the loins could this smile easily have passed
into the bright groins where the genitals burned.
Else stood this stone a fragment and defaced,
with lucent body from the shoulders falling,
too short, not gleaming like a lion’s fell;
nor would this star have shaken the shackles off,
bursting with light, until there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
To read something deeply is to take a risk—not least the risk of changing oneself. It is to encounter another, possibly alien consciousness, to feel the presence of another person’s vagaries and problems, needs, brilliances and insights: it is to risk involvement. Most people don’t wish to read at that level. But it is the level at which the greatest writing asks to be read. In Rilke’s sonnet, the poet stares at a broken, time-damaged statue of the Greek god Apollo. Rilke is trying to understand what the statue could possibly mean—since it seems to mean something quite intensely. Finally a voice speaks. Is it from the statue? from Rilke? from the god? “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”—“You must change your life.” The entire poem has been alive with the possibility of the invasion of Rilke by a consciousness not his own, and at this moment the invasion comes. The words arrive not in the “proper” “Sie” form but in the “Du” form—the form you would use for intimates or children or dogs. The poem is about many things, but it is certainly about the experience of poetry and very likely about the creation of a poet. That “other” consciousness which has threatened to surface throughout suddenly tells Rilke in a way that leaves no doubt or room for argument that he must “change his life.” And what does that mean? I think it means that he must live—or try to live—at the intensity which the poem names: he is that broken body of a god which still retains power. The voice is telling the poet that he himself must rise to the power which the statue exemplifies:
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power.
But how does one do that? Apollo is the sun god. I think the poem suggests that it is only by holding yourself open at your deepest levels to the sun—which is to say to “light,” which is to say to everything—that a person is transformed into a poet. The poem offers a kind of parable. Tradition is named—Apollo is a Greek god and is thus “traditional,” and tradition is present to some degree in the poem’s sonnet form—but it is a tradition which insists upon the constant renewal of transformational experience, a tradition which actively transcends itself and bursts in a blaze of light into the now. Such a “tradition” is perhaps what Harold Rosenberg meant by “a tradition of the new”:
nor would this star have shaken the shackles off,
bursting with light
The poets laureate I listened to had many ideas to “teach” the young about poetry. Not a single one of them suggested that the poet laureate him/herself might learn what the proposed students had been reading or listening to. Not one had a plan to find out what the world outside of poetry—that immense otherness—thought of as having linguistic value. Not a single one of them suggested changing their own poetry in any way as part of their teaching/learning. Though they would involve the students in writing and would give them exercises and suggestions, these poets laureate would remain not learners but teachers. Du—not Ich—mußt dein Leben ändern. How do you open people to the reality of the sun?
Post Number: 6
|Posted on Wednesday, February 24, 2010 - 03:47 am: ||
Two splendid articles - the Wikipedia piece and your own.
Regarding the first, I find it fascinating and appropriate that Chaucer and the later official English poets laureate were/are paid in total or in part with some form of alcohol. Sprits to induce the spirits and when the spirits don't show you can always numb the pain of their absence with your wages. The Americans should follow suit, especially since $35,000 isn't enough money to sustain the poet, let alone any dependents he or she might have.
What can a poet in such a position do? I thought one of the things Dana Gioia did well as head of the NEA was promote poetry in a very general way, including an excellent CD of talented famous actors reading a fairly wide variety of poetry.
The most significant issue here though is the last line of Rilke's poem. As many times as I've read it, in several translations, there is no escaping the impact, the demand of that line. Apollo, Rilke, the poem rises up and punches you right in the face.
Rilke could be subtle in the extreme, exquisitely ornamental yet saturated with layers of meaning. To read him is to plunge into the depths. But that one sentence at the end of that one poem makes it emphatically clear how he felt about poetry. This is confirmed in the intensity of his correspondence and other writings. Despite the sometimes overwrought self-indulgence of his passions, he lived those words. And he was by no means the only poet of his time or the many centuries before who did so.
What happened? Is the academy the problem? Have we turned poetry into just another obstacle to be overcome, another grade to acquire on the way to a degree? Or does the academy turn living art into museum pieces. Lovely, strong, provocative, the obvious result of an artist's openness, yet in that setting it is easy to escape. A poem becomes another object in the great mass of objects we may or may not choose to consume. As you have pointed out elsewhere - consumerism forces that choice. Take it or leave it. In the process the actual presence of poetry, or any art, is lost.
A poet must live in a state of perpetual change because to be awake, to be aware means that the poet is constantly aware that everything is changing all the time. From our bodies to all the elements of our environment and back to our thoughts, consciousness itself, all is change. One's life is change. The recognition of this reality, which is reality as we perceive it, is shielded from us by the lie of the static condition. Whether it be the ego, the family, or the nation-state, we are taught from birth to strive toward solidity and permanence. We are set at odds with the very nature that underpins and sustains us. Anyone then attempting to live Rilke's demand runs the risk of exclusion at least and possibly a number of mental illnesses. The dissonance is too great. Yet that is the dilemma of the modern poet. If the record of the past is remotely accurate it would appear that this may have always been the dilemma of any poet who truly lived the art.
It doesn't have to be this way, but any poet that is authorized by the establishment must almost always have succeeded in mastering the lie of the solid condition. It is difficult to imagine Bob Kaufman or William Blake as poets laureate. They were simply too unreliable. But as the filmmaker David Cronenberg once said, it is the artist's responsibility to be irresponsible. Try teaching that to children and see what happens.
Ultimately, by its nature art is at odds with the state and if officially allowed to run its natural course it will destroy the state as we know it because the populace would become ungovernable. Therefore, poets laureate are set to serve the state, to reinforce it. They will not demand that you must change your life, at least not in the way that Rilke intends.
I do not begrudge poets that become poets laureate. In fact, I applaud them. They have received recognition for their work. They will, as you say, sell more copies of their books. They might even reap some financial reward for a lifetime of work. That's quite an accomplishment.
Still poetry, change, continues with or without the state. It always will. And it will change your life if you let it.
Post Number: 70
|Posted on Wednesday, February 24, 2010 - 05:14 am: ||
Yes, somewhere hovering around the notion of "You must change your life" is the notion you point out: that "Life is change." (And not--to make John Donne's pun--"small change" either!)