The Baudelaire of the Piedmont

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, December 25, 2004

Through all the focus on state and national political matters over the past few months, an important event in the life of Carrboro received inadequate attention. I refer to the August (and august) reappointment of Carrboro's poet laureate, Patrick Herron.

With all the decidedly non-lyrical voices coming over the TV and radio during election season and its aftermath, it's refreshing to be able to step back and reflect on the significance of poetry to our lives and culture.

Although we often don't credit it today, poetry has been a key factor in marking the changes that accompanied what we consider the development of modern society.

One seminal work in defining that relationship was the French poet Baudelaire's 1865 prose poem "Loss of a Halo." Given Carrboro's current focus on downtown traffic flow, it is appropriate to consider Baudelaire's poetic look at a prominent poet who has crossed one of what were then the still recently constructed boulevards of Paris.

"I made a sudden move and my halo slipped off my head and fell into the mire of the macadam. I was much too scared to pick it up ... Now I can walk around incognito, do low things, throw myself into every kind of filth just like ordinary mortals."

Surely, it is this loss of the halo that adorned the gentlemen poets of an earlier era that opened the door for the poets who described the 20th century. Without that loss, it would hardly have been possible for William Butler Yeats to warn of a "rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem," for T.S. Eliot to wonder "should I then presume," for Allen Ginsberg to howl about "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," or for Maya Angelou to stand at Bill Clinton's inauguration and remind us of a time "Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your/Brow and when you yet knew you still/ Knew nothing."

In 2002, the town of Carrboro picked the halo out of the mud, dusted it off, and handed it to its first poet laureate, Kate Lovelady. Last year, Lovelady named Patrick Herron as her successor and this year, at Herron's suggestion, the term of office was extend to two years, with Herron continuing on.

Herron explained last summer that he felt that the longer term was necessary for the laureate to be effective, and should perhaps be as long as four years. "In a town so small, there are simply not that many poets who are willing to work hard as a an ambassador of poetry," he said.

I asked Herron why he thought Carrboro in particular was a town with a poet laureate. "We support the arts," he said, "and look to artists for new ways of looking at things and for adding new dimensions to our lives, whether those dimensions are decorative, intellectual or emotional."

Herron also believes that Carrboro's political culture is connected to its embracing the arts. "Politics in Carrboro is a rather open and participatory enterprise," he said. "We're welcome to participate and are encouraged to do so. The 'tyranny of the majority' in Carrboro is made up of interests that are of the American minority: progressives, African-Americans, intellectuals, Latinos, GLBTs, artists, environmentalists, activists and so on."

Herron believes that poetry is challenged in our society by an orientation toward the visual and an anti-intellectualism fostered by the right wing. Potential poetry readers, he said, are lost through "the systematic destruction of the public school system by the misanthropic right."

The contemporary media has largely lost touch with poetry. A century ago, Edwin Markham's "The Man with the Hoe" was printed on the front page of newspapers across the country. Today, a poem fragment might appear in the book review section if at all. Too few of us are familiar with the poetry of the U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Is it beyond the pale to imagine the poetry of Kooser, Sharon Olds or Galway Kinnell enlivening an episode of "Friends"?

Herron tells me that for every person who reads poetry there are 10 who write it. I would guess that anyone who writes poetry also reads it, and there are more than 5 million poets noted at poetry.com. But that's still a lot less than watch "Desperate Housewives" each week.

But last June's first-ever Carrboro Poetry Festival drew 40 poets and standing-room crowds. Herron would like to see more poets who write in a way that both interacts with the austere concerns of other poets and speaks to the hearts and minds of a broader audience.

Although that is a fine objective, I asked Herron his top goal as poet laureate. "To find a replacement!" he replied.

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Total votes: 233

Comments

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Patrick. I'm not a connoiseur of poetry if there is such a thing, but I know what I like and that includes both rhythm and message. In my own limited understanding of the technical aspects of poetry, I've always considered some song lyrics as poetry although I wouldn't make that a universal categorization. What's the saying: if it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, it must be a duck? Fortunately for us, there are lots and lots of different kinds of ducks in the world. I assume the same holds true for poetry!Bravo to you for keeping that diversity in the public eye.

The News and Observer's Sunday Journal's Sunday Reader regularly publishes short short stories, excerpts for longer works, creative non-fiction and poetry.
While not all selections are about social awareness or meant to raise social questions of great import, many are or at least I can say with some authority that the editor hasn't shied away from poems and stories addressing social issues.
My bigger complaint is that I wish they kept the work available online a bit longer. I guess 4 months is plenty for more people tho ;->
Full Disclosure: I have managed to publish poetry there for the past several years -- at least some of it socially aware I hope.

Kirk might want to talk about the Indy's poetry policies.

To elaborate on the point about Markham's "Man With a Hoe" that I made in my column, our newspapers regularly cover issues of poverty. How powerful would it be to see on the front page this poem by John Balaban that IFC's Chris Moran circulated last year:

Eddie

Hadn't seen Eddie for some time,
wheeling his chair through traffic,
skinny legs in shorts, T-shirted,
down at the corner off Dixie Highway,
lifting his Coke cup to the drivers
backed up, bumper to bumper, at the light.
Sometimes he slept on the concrete bench
up from Joe's News. Sometimes police
would take him in and he said he didn't mind
because he got three squares and sometimes
a doctor would look at his legs, paralyzed,
he said, since the cop in New York shot him
when he tried to steal a car. Sad story,
of the kind we've learned to live with.

One rainy day he looked so bad, legs
ballooned, ankles to calves, clothes soaked,
I shoved a $20 in his cup. But, like I said,
I hadn't seen him around so yesterday
I stopped and asked this other panhandler
where's Eddie? "Dead," he said. Slammed
by a truck running the light, crushed
into his wheelchair. Dead, months ago.

My wife says he's better off dead,
but I don't know. Behind his smudged glasses
his eyes were clever. He had a goofy smile
but his patter was sharp. His legs were a mess
and he had to be lonely. But spending days
in the bright fanfare of traffic and
those nights on his bench, with the moon
huge in the palm trees, the highway quiet,
some good dreams must have come to him.

Thanks, Patrick for adding your thoughts here. I agree with your comment about getting poetry into Walmart and CBS but I would also invert it: if we there were no Walmart's or CBSes, if our economy were smaller scale and more regional and local, would it be easier to do the kinds of things you hope to do with poetry in Carrboro?

Looking at the case I offered of Friends, there is certainly nothing antithetical between comedy and poetry. Think no further than Shakespeare. But there is something in the economic function of Friends that conflicts with the sort of reflection that might result from a guest appearance by Galway Kinnell.

Hi Terri -

The quote you attributed to me (“The contemporary media has largely lost touch with poetry.”) is Dan's, not mine.

I do not share that lament for a number of reasons, so many that I cannot engage such a question directly.

To perhaps overgeneralize my own position, I'm trying to find a space for poetry that isn't of the commercial-confessional sort. Confessional poetry is everywhere to be found on the poetry shelves at Barnes and Noble, and you can hear it on HBO (or local slams for that matter) or at academic poetry conventions. Confession and identity poetics have become filters for what poetry is distributed, and unfortunately that filter is selecting a lot of junk and throwing away a lot of good poetry. Perhaps its a function of an overall growing social illiteracy, but somehow everyone assumes that it is the poet that makes and defines a poetry, that the identity of a poet and the poet's "authenticity" validates the poet's poetry. It's a terrible way to filter poetry.

Hip-hop and poetry are not the same thing. Opera and poetry share much in common, but opera isn't poetry, if you know what I mean. Partakes in poetry, but it isn't poetry. Hip-hop's got a lot of other things going on in it, many other concerns. Deciding what is or isn't poetry, however, isn't my bag.

As for slam, there's so much wonderful slam, but the vast majority suffers from (a) limited vocabulary (b) too-regular metric schemes, particularly too much end rhyme, and (c) limited subject matter, usually of a confessional nature ("this was really bad, and it happened to me, so it must be interesting"). Thankfully there are plenty of exceptions in the slam world, and both slam and hip-hop become interesting in a poetic sense, at least formally speaking, when a flow begins.

I don't care about getting poetry into the Wal-Marts or on CBS and I'm not endowed with the ability to decide what is poetry and what isn't. I do want to get poetry into our community, and I am committed to providing a sort of editorial function for local poetry, namely by working hard to find poetry at which people here will marvel and organizing events. Poetry drives literacy and at a certain level subverts the idea of a mainstream mind, because poetry MUST push the very limits of language itself. Poetry seems to rework language as it works language, and so it requires a bit of work. The last thing American mainstream media wants you to do is work at "getting" something.

I'd be glad to share with you the questions Dan sent me back in October and the answers I supplied him, if you are at all interested, that is.

Patrick

To hear this past year's Carrboro Poetry Festival and to learn about the 2005 Festival, see Carrboro Poetry Festival . org.

To visit Patrick's blog and to order his latest book, see Carrboro Poetry.

I think that Patrick would agree that the outsider poetry is the stuff of the moment. His complaint, I'm sure since we talked about this a lot, is again the Po'Establishment and the MSP movement (read MainStream Poetry). As Dan mentioned the Carrboro Po'Fest was very eccumenical and wide open and a lot of fun too.

Dan--my comment was in response to your statement about the media having lost touch with poetry. It's easy to think about the media only in terms of the mainstream channels, but if you consider the evolving public media, including blogs and open source MP3 download sites (http://downhillbattle.org), then 'the media' is very much in touch with poetry and is working to make it more accessible.

Happy New Year!

Terri,
I don't think your comment is really fair to Patrick. Check out the line up from the poetry festival: http://www.carrboropoetryfestival.org/staticpages/index.php?page=2004031...
It seems to indicate a good familiarity with the diversity of contemporary poetry.

The success of Richard Simmons and a few others does not negate the fact that NBC ABC Disney CNN Fox theTimes thePost and many many more have "largely" lost touch with poetry.

--Dan

"The contemporary media has largely lost touch with poetry." I don't think hip hop and other pop artists would agree with this statement. I hope Mr. Herron will look to some of our local hip hoppers and poetry slammers as potential replacements.

Patrick Herron wrote to tell me and others that he just taped a poem for WCHL to be played on air tomorrow (Thursday January 5) between 7 and 9AM to "WCHL Morning News with Ron Stutts." I can say without giving anything away that the poem is about Patrick's friend, Marine Jonathan Kuniholm.

Thanks for the heads-up, Paul! I just tuned in and heard Pat's poem about Jon Kuniholm (who is also a friend of mine).

What a bummer for the on-air banter, huh? After playing the poem, it sounded like Ron didn't know what to do with what he called "such a serious topic." The news isn't always good, you know. It's still news, it's still critical information that our community needs.

Thanks much to Pat for helping personalize and articulate Jon's loss to help others understand the true cost of militarism.

Even if poets write their predictable confessional "it's realy bad and it happened to me, so it must be interesting" slam poems, there can be a certain therapy in this work that is at least valid for the poets. If 10-15 people gather to listen to each others confessionals, isn't it a type of cheap group therapy far more constructive than a typical AA meeting (another popular cheap therapy)?

Thus, poetry can function for different poets in a different way. It may be hard to find a wide representation of styles, subject matter etc. (outside the Carrboro Poetry Fest) in the triangle, but at least Patrick has started the ball rolling. The ratio of University students to poetry readings might be dead worst in this area. Go figure, as creative writing has just popped up at NC State, and has been around UNC and even Duke for some time.

The only awful thing about Dan's original story was the last line, which was unneccesary, and blasted away at Patrick's own assertion that the laureate should to a two year stint.

Bravo Patrick for finding away to get not-rich poets to travel form all over the country to celebrate their craft. It meant a lot to be a part of it.

Doug

Doug,
Context is everything. You will note that I earlier quote Patrick saying “In a town so small, there are simply not that many poets who are willing to work hard as a an ambassador of poetry.” Thus, the last line is hardly aweful or a blast at Patrick. It is merely acknowledgment of his own sense of a challenging aspect of the position.

On the point of therapy, I wonder if you've read Robert Bellah etal's Habits of the Heart. They are pretty critical of professional therapy for its role of replacing social structures of personal support. The role you suggest for poetry is very much in line with what they advocate.

In the introduction to this thread Dan Coleman attributes this statement to Patrick Herron:
"The 'tyranny of the majority' in Carrboro is made up of interests that are of the American minority: progressives, African-Americans, intellectuals, Latinos, GLBTs, artists, environmentalists, activists and so on."
Will either of them tell me how to take this sentence, particularly the phrase "tyranny of the majority" in the context of the sentence that precedes it?

Patrick might want to speak for himself but I took the phrase to be a somewhat facetious reference to recent critics of the Board of Aldermen: the critics' view of "tyranny of the majority" as opposed to his view of the town as "open and participatory."

All I meant was to use "tyrrany of the majority" ironically, namely because the majority that dictates Carrboro politics is comprised of minority groups, whereas in the national political arena the majority is constructed from the majority. Even when minority interests assemble themselves they still do not amount to a majority, at least not when filtered through the dubious apparatus of American voting mechanisms. Minorities plus minority interests are Carrboro's majority. Carrboro is politically the most open community in which I have ever , at the very least in terms of accessibility.

Thanks for the continued comments. I really did want someone else to become laureate before the term was officially extended. I am stretched thin between having a small child, being a graduate student, having a job, a research project, a festival to run, and a book to promote. I cannot even manage to keep up with my email any longer.

working with in words:
mood as it proceeds born (spry and feeble), but the flash with its luminescence underscored (brave and honest); sure economy but in soul talk- the mark of wings on water, buttoned to the material by emotions, cankers, and breath. The rush can be galling, as it is a practice of being aware and consumed- by entropy, promise, jagged edges, and heather- futureless and unfoldable, an exploration filled with grace and made noble by its focus, while shared.

 
 

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