Thursday, May 28, 2009

NC to Lose Poet Laureate

“Musings” for May 21
NC to Lose Poet Laureate

On June 1, North Carolina will join 8 other states in the dubious claim of being the only states without a poet laureate. At that time, Kathryn Stripling Byer, North Carolina’s Poet Laureate since 2003, will complete her term, and in the wake of state budget cuts, no new laureate will be named.
The word “laureate” is derived from the Greek laureatus, meaning crowned with laurel, after the practice of crowning Olympic champions with branches of the laurel or bay tree. Over the years that practice was applied to other fields, and the term laureate was used to designate a person who had been honored for achieving distinction in a particular field.
It is unclear who the world’s first poet laureate was. The term was used as a degree in rhetoric in the Middle Ages, so it was applied to a number of poets from that time. At the same time, British monarchs had developed a tradition of having a court or royal poet, the earliest perhaps being Gulielmus Peregrinus, King’s Poet for Richard I in 1190. Geoffrey Chaucer was considered poet laureate in 1389, and James I named Ben Jonson poet laureate in 1617, but Charles II was the first to have a legally designated poet laureate, that being John Dryden.
In the U.S. there has been an official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress since 1937, but the term poet laureate has only been used in an official status at the national level since 1985. On the other hand, North Carolina has had a poet laureate since 1948. The first such NC Poet Laureate was Arthur Abernethy from 1948 to 1953. He was succeeded by James Larkin Pearson (53-81), Sam Ragan (82-96), and Fred Chappell from 1997 until Byer took over the post.
The official purpose of the state poet laureate, as overseen by the NC Arts Council, is to promote the reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry across the state. The poet laureate is also called upon to write “occasional” (meaning written for a particular event or ceremony) poetry and to mentor the state’s community of writers. Byer has gone well beyond the official call of duty, visiting hundreds of schools, judging competitions, and creating her blog, “The Laureate’s Lasso,” which features poetry news and events, commentary on and samples from new books of poetry in NC, links to NC poetry journals, links to other poetry-related blogs, and a poet-of-the-week profile of NC poets.
It is difficult to say what impact not having a poet laureate will have on the state of poetry in NC. Poets tend to be missionary in their work, and with or without the title I know Byer will continue in her efforts to promote the mission of poetry. Nevertheless, one can’t help but be saddened when their home state becomes one of the few to no longer have a publicly-supported presence in an undertaking as noble and vital as that of poetry. Certainly the inability to share in a statewide pride in our very own poet laureate will weaken our sense of North Carolina as a place rich in the arts, and if Mary Cloake, Director of the Arts Council in Ireland is right when she says the presence of publicly-funded arts is “considered a key indicator of a mature and attractive knowledge-based economy [which] plays a crucial role in attracting inward investment by global corporations,” then our financial health may be damaged as well.
In honor of Byer’s work as poet laureate and to illustrate the sort of “occasional” verse she created in that post, I’m including below a poem she wrote for her own coronation.

Piece of Cake

When the young woman calling from
Charlotte to interview me for her radio program
asked, “What is a Laureate, anyway?”

I heard my voice hem and haw
like a bad line of poetry. I thought I heard all of the Old
North State holding its breath while I struggled

to say something clever, but all I could think of
was “lariat.” Then in a moment
of quiet desperation, I thought of Laurette,

who lives just down the road
from my childhood home, hands busy sculpting
the icing on each of her Milky Way cakes

as she stands in the heart of her kitchen,
the sun sliding into the cornfields, another June
day disappearing, another night kindling

its Milky Way stars,
and at long last I know how to answer
that question. A Laureate

lassoes the Milky Way,
word after luminous word of it,
holding it out in her hands

like a piece
of Laurette’s chocolate cake

Try this!
Believe me,
You’ll like the way poetry tastes!


  1. I think you are right in that Kay Byer will continue to promote peotry. Many NC poets owe her big time for her endorsement of our poetry. I know I do. This is a sad pronouncemnet of just how important poetry isn't to the powers that be. This is a slap in the face to Kay Byer and poetry in specific and the arts in general. Kay Byer is a class act - a conscientious, generous, kind, and gifted poet. Helen Losse

  2. (And rumor has it that a new laureate will be named very, very soon.)