Poet's Notebook: Assuming the position

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Assuming the position - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Poet's Notebook: Assuming the position

I have started to say

‘A quarter of a century’
Or ‘thirty years back’
About my own life...


When we arrived at the Hickman Theatre in Gulfport for a reading a while ago, we circled around the crowded parking lot for a few minutes before spotting the Laureate Parking Cone. Now there’s a dividend, we agreed. “I oughta swipe it,” Jeanne said, using her criminal voice. “Who’s gonna bust the wife of the Poet Laureate?”

Regrettably, we didn’t pinch it, but we sometimes pinch ourselves as we move steadily through the months on the Laureate carousel. Already National Poetry Month is upon us, time to give what may be (for two more years) our annual report.

Hearing that I might be anointed Poet Laureate of Florida, an old friend wrote to say, “Peter, while you’re considering, I hope you’ll remember this letter,” attaching some comments that British poet Philip Larkin wrote when declining both the Oxford Professorship of Poetry (in 1968) and the country’s Poet Laureateship (in 1984), England’s two highest poetry positions.

Basically, Larkin claimed that he was “unfitted” for these roles, because he wasn’t good at talking about poetry, and in addition, his view of “hell on earth” was a literary party drinking “washing sherry” with people he didn’t want to know. He had the uncanny ability to say things you don’t agree with that hold an unsettling degree of truth.

Larkin’s brilliant (and often funny) poems combine an intense fear of death with a Swiftian disgust for life. Though he had his share of friends and lovers, he was a bachelor and librarian all his days, which shows that he knew himself pretty well. I, on the other hand, taught poetry for over 30 years, and have been married to Jeanne for 58 (raising 4 inquisitive children), so I am somewhat accustomed to confusing real-life activity. Still, I agree with Larkin’s basic point: The main job of a poet should be to write poetry, not analyze or sell it. (I’m not comparing myself to a great poet like Larkin, but as a person; for example, I’m not too fussy about sherry.)

I resist the poet-in-a-garret stereotype, preferring the poet-as-citizen group (along with Juan Felipe Herrera, America’s Poet Laureate, who gave a delightful reading at the Palladium recently). I like the idea of wandering around Florida’s schools and libraries reading poems, hoping a few might take root in someone’s heart or mind, bringing pleasure and thoughtfulness that can be shared.

The upshot, of course, is that I said yes, so we’re busier than we ever thought we’d be at our ages, giving readings throughout the state to big and little (not to say miniscule) audiences. Add to this the enormous weight of weighing every word and line in our bi-weekly Poet’s Notebook columns and drawings, plus trying to keep up the writing that resulted in my being chosen in the first place, you can see why we often feel a bit stretched. Fortunately, this is driving me to drink; just part of the job.

Two Larkinesque questions emerge: 1) How much time will be left to write more poems; and 2) Given the fact that most poets’ best work is done when they’re young, is it worth it? Well, like most questions concerning poetry, there are no real answers (there are no real answers to many important questions: What is life? Why is it so hard to read menus?).

I believe in the magic of poems, and am happy and proud to be Florida’s pied piper of poetry, dropping poems like apples semi-randomly around a state that leans toward oranges. Although part of the poet’s job is to “speak truth to power” (read Poet’s Notebook), poetry’s basic nature is to celebrate the wonder of life, and make people happier. For three years, I’ll try to do this.

All that’s left to happen

Is some deaths (my own included).
Their order, and their manner,
Remain to be learnt.

—Both quotes from “I have started to say” by Philip Larkin (1922-1985), from Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux , 1988 

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