We're excited to launch our fourth episode of Politics & Poetry, where we work to understand the opportunities for poetry to serve as a bridge between policy and purpose, and as James Dickey, U.S. Poet Laureate and writer of acclaimed novel, Deliverance, shared, "The goal of the poet is to make the world more available.” In this month's episode, we’re exploring the role of the Poet Laureate.
Jaki Shelton Green: https://jakisheltongreen.com/
Joy Harjo: https://www.joyharjo.com
Bobby LeFebre: https://www.bobbylefebre.com
Chelsea Rathburn: http://chelsearathburn.com
Colorado Humanities. (n.d.). Colorado poet laureate. https://coloradohumanities.org/programs/colorado-poet-laureate/
Emory University. (n.d.). Agnes Cochran Bramblett papers, 1904-1974. https://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/bramblett506/
Evans, S. (2020). Georgia poet laureate Chelsea Rathburn explores struggles of motherhood and childhood in new book of poems. WABE. https://www.wabe.org/georgia-poet-laureate-chelsea-rathburn-explores-struggles-of-motherhood-and-childhood-in-new-book-of-poems/
Harden, L. F., (2020). Meeting GA's poet laureate: Here's why you need to know her. The Atlantan. https://atlantanmagazine.com/ga-poet-laureate-chelsea-rathburn
Georgia Center for the Arts. (n.d.). What we do. https://gaarts.org/what-we-do/programs/literary-arts/
Internetpoem.com. (n.d.). Biography of Frank Lebby Stanton. https://internetpoem.com/frank-lebby-stanton/biography/
J. Poet, Rock & Roll Globe.com (2020). Jaki Shelton Green: Poetry for the Pandemic https://rockandrollglobe.
Library of Congress. (n.d.). About the librarian. https://www.loc.gov/about/about-the-librarian/
Library of Congress. Living nations, living words. (n.d.). https://www.loc.gov/ghe/cascade/index.html?appid=be31c5cfc7614d6680e6fa47be888dc3&bookmark=Introduction
Poets.org. (n.d.). About Robert Frost. https://poets.org/poet/robert-frost
Poets.org. (n.d.) About Jaki Shelton Green. https://poets.org/poet/jaki-shelton-green
Poets.org. (n.d.). United States poet laureate. https://poets.org/united-states-poet-laureate
Rathburn, C. (2013). A raft of grief. Autumn House Press.
Rathburn, C. (2019). Still life with mother and knife, a New York Times “New & Noteworthy.” Louisiana State University Press.
Soulspazm. (2021, April 27). Joy Harjo - This morning I pray for my enemies [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGXp8DGSj_c
This is a poem entitled “How it Happened,” written by Chelsea Rathburn, Poet Laureate of Georgia (used by permission from the author):
“How it Happened” by Chelsea Rathburn
I blame that little village in Spain,
the one with the whitewashed houses
in a crescent along the sea,
a fleet of pastel fishing boats,
and that celebrated coffee with brandy.
A sour wedge of apple lurked
at the bottom like a tea-leaf fortune.
Because we couldn't afford the fish
we ate pizza with peaches and oregano
on the beach, the sun and breeze conspiring.
Seeing us there beneath the cliffs
and the postcards of the cliffs,
who wouldn't have predicted luck and beauty?
Can I be blamed for loving it all
and thinking it was you I loved?
Loving it all and thinking it was you--love, blame, exhilaration, shame, growth, and understanding. Welcome to Episode Four of Politics & Poetry. Today we thought we’d spend time exploring the role of the people who highlight poetry for us in an official capacity, the role of the Poet Laureate. As we’ve been thinking about and talking about the ebb and flow of the popularity of poetry in our culture and the shifting emphasis or interest in political involvement, we’ve affirmed that the spoken word and written arts have in fact long held a significant place of importance in our country and political systems, both on a national level and in our state governments. From very early days in our nation and our states’ histories, our poets have been identified by political and social leaders as holding a special role and tasked with the responsibility of helping voice our individual ideals in the hopes of better understanding our shared identities together.
Let’s start with a little history... According to Poets.org, “The US Poet Laureate position was established in 1936, first by a philanthropist, named Archer M. Huntington, who endowed “a chair of Poetry of the English language in the Library of Congress.” Huntington created this endowment to establish an annual stipend which continues to this day.
The following year, in 1937, Joseph Auslander became the first “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” He served in this role until 1941, when Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress at the time, instituted a one-year term for the consultantship and appointed Allen Tate as Auslander’s successor.”
Joseph Auslander was born on October 11, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received a BA from Harvard University in 1917, and in 1924 he received a Parker Fellowship to study at the Sorbonne. That same year, he published his first book of poetry, Sunrise Trumpets (Harper & Brothers, 1924).
According to Poets.org, “Auslander was also the author of the poetry collections Riders at the Gate (Macmillan, 1938), Letters to Women (Harper & Brothers, 1929), and Cyclops’ Eye (Harper & Brothers, 1926), among others. Known for his war poetry, he collaborated with his wife, the poet Audrey Wurdemann, to write The Unconquerables: Salutes to the Undying Spirit of the Nazi-Occupied Countries (Simon and Schuster, 1943). This collection is thought to have encouraged participation in the War Loan drives during World War II.”
From that point onward, to 1985, this position was titled "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress." Then, more recently, in 1985, the role and a NEW official title was formally established by an act of Congress on December 20th and changed to the "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry."
The Poet Laureate of the United States is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress. Carla Hayden is the 14th and our current Librarian of Congress, and she was sworn in on September 14, 2016. According to the Library of Congress, “Hayden, is the first woman and the first African American to lead the national library, and she was nominated to the position by President Barack Obama.” Over the course of the one-year term, which lasts from September to May, the U.S. Poet Laureate presents a reading and lecture at the Library of Congress and often engages in a community-oriented poetry project with national reach.
As you just shared, our current Librarian of Congress is Carla Hayden, and she appointed Joy Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress on June 19, 2019. She was reappointed to a second term, and a third term on Nov. 19, 2020. Joy Harjo, is the first Native American poet to serve in the position. She is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951, and is the author of nine books of poetry.
Our Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, described Joy Harjo as “...championing the art of poetry—‘soul talk’ as she calls it—for more than four decades,” “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
Another interesting thing we discovered during our research, is that Joy Harjo conceived the idea of mapping the US with Native Nations poets and poems. This project is named Living Nations, Living Words. Each location marker reveals a Native Nations poet and features an image, biography and a link to hear the poet recite and comment on an original poem. This website is truly awesome, where the poets and poems spring to life and finally invite everyone to make their own maps, together where poetry is sung. I lived in Oklahoma for five years and while there became more aware of the history and current conditions of many of our Native Nations and their rich heritage.
Earlier this year, Joy Harjo released a new recording, her first new recording in a decade. In the recording, Joy digs deep into the indigenous red earth and the shared languages of music to sing, speak and play a stunningly original musical meditation that seeks healing for a troubled world. Here is a poem by Joy Harjo, “This Morning...I Pray for My Enemies” performed by Joy Harjo, Lisette Garcia, Marissa Sapulpa, Sandra Sapulpa; written by Barrett Martin, Joy Harjo; produced by Barrett Martin; source: Sunyata Records. Used by permission from the author.
“This Morning...I Pray for My Enemies” by Joy Harjo
And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.
We found this poem emblematic of our podcast and our current culture in many ways--the intersection of poetry and political life, individual heartaches and our collective agonies as we choose to face long standing problems like racism, patriarchy, poverty, disease, protection of our world--do we turn away, or do we turn toward the sun? Harjo’s words, lyrics, and music invite us to acknowledge our universal struggle; she encourages us to see ourselves, to contemplate how we might choose to engage and the merit of a righteous fight. The choices we make to open hearts and minds, to seek to understand, or the choice we make to turn away. As Amanda Gorman writes, “If we are brave enough to see it. Brave enough to be it.” Can we cross the political aisle, the church pew, the street to connect? Can our poets stop us in mid thought and give us a reason to contemplate a human story, just for a moment and open our minds?
We see this same connection in the words of poets closer to home too. Here in Georgia, where Dad and I currently live, we have discovered an even longer history of the role of the Poet Laureate. According to the Georgia Council for the Arts, “...We benefit from a rich literary tradition, including novelists, nonfiction writers, and poets. From Sidney Lanier, Joel Chandler Harris, Margaret Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, to Alice Walker, Pat Conroy, Ferrol Sams, Natasha Trethewey, and Judson Mitcham, our state has been home to some of the most well-known and most widely read authors in the country. To recognize, promote, and encourage Georgia’s literary talent, Georgia Council for the Arts produces a number of poetry programs, including Poetry Out Loud, the Poet Laureate’s Prize, and Literary Events Grants of Georgia.”
The position of the Georgia Poet Laureate was first established in Georgia on January 18, 1925, by Governor Clifford Walker’s proclamation, and the role was codified in Georgia State Code, Sec. 50-1-3.
Georgia’s previous laureates have included:
One of my favorite poems has long been “Keep-a-Goin’” by Frank L. Stanton, first published in 1910, but I did not know until preparing for this podcast that he was the first Poet Laureate of Georgia from 1925 to 1927. I was introduced to his poem by my mother-in-law, Louise Chenault -- it was one of her favorite poems also. Stanton was also the initial columnist for the Atlanta Constitution in addition to becoming the first Poet Laureate of the State of Georgia, a post which Stanton held until his death.
Another Georgia Poet Laureate was Agnes Cochran Bramblett (1886-1979), she was Georgia's first female Poet Laureate. Born in Summerville, Georgia, in 1886, her first book of poetry was published in 1927, followed by five more books of poetry and a novel. Bramblett was instrumental in establishing Georgia Poetry Day in 1948, chairing Georgia's first celebration of the annual event. She was appointed Georgia's Poet Laureate in 1963, a distinction she held until 1973. It was not easy to find information about Agnes’ life or poetry (much to our dismay!), but we did have success finding many of her books that have long been out of print from eBay and used book stores. Interestingly, in one of the books I purchased, in addition to an autograph, the book contained an original (and I believe unpublished) poem, which was penned to the Hardin family about their beloved homeplace, Hill ‘Ardin. I looked up the home and it is on the registry of historic places.
Here is Agnes Cochran Bramlett’s poem, “Still House”:
I used to say I wanted a house that was quiet and still,
With red geraniums blooming upon the window sill
A great gray cat purring on the rug before the fire,
A still house, a quiet house was my young heart’s desire.
I had no time for pleasure, I scarce had time to
The home cares kept me busy while the full years
I grew weary rushing at school-time, with de-
mands for a dress or a blouse
Impatient with the confusion and noise of my too-
Time passed and the children left home as all young birds leave the nest,
to try their wings, to sing new songs in fields that
suit them best.
An atmosphere of quiet has crept in like a mouse
and I sit here and strain my ears for the sound of
a song in my house.
I hear them calling “Mother” across the empty
I answer from my quiet house, “I’m lonely for you dears.”
There is a red geranium a-bloom on the window
A pedigreed angora, and a house that is stil, O
Loneliness and the layered, evolving emotions of familial relationships and of the human spirit. Ms. Cochran Bramblett writes simply about the daily, small struggles of longing, the enormous struggle for understanding. The impatient quest for love, for time, for appreciation, for quiet to enjoy, to endure, to contemplate what we have. What we want. The inevitable recognition of time passing and a shared emptiness for what has passed. This poem, and in her other works, in some ways seem rooted in the past, but still connects us with our most fundamental emotions--the desire to be still, to pause; the universal questioning of our purpose.
As we read both Joy Harjo’s work and Agnes Cochran Bramblett’s work we found many similarities in their attention to the natural world, and to their descriptions about the human place in the world. From different eras, backgrounds and geographies, both poets describe their journey as a quest, each walking, listening, asking questions, and seeking truth. Both looking to the sun, spiritual being or God for guidance; seeking company and understanding; ultimately looking within and questioning their connection to the world, to others, and to humanity.
Both have also worked to raise cultural awareness of the land and the writer’s place in it by creating enduring, natural spaces to read, raise awareness of the contributions of writers, and ultimately to share poetry with a wide audience. Joy Harjo created Living Nations, Living Words and Agnes Cochran Bramblett created Author’s Grove, a project in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, a grove of trees dedicated to writers.
Another first woman in poetry is Jaki Shelton Green, the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. She’s the state’s third woman – and first African American – Laureate in the state. During an interview in 2020, Jaki talked about her role sharing, “...(I) usually travel the state teaching classes and reading poems at gatherings organized by libraries, universities and arts organizations. I also do residencies at schools and universities, to expand the appreciation of the literary arts and poetry across the state.” The North Carolina Poet Laureate’s first album, The River Speaks of Thirst, features poems that take on America’s historical crimes with truth, compassion and a hope for a better future.
Let’s listen to one of her poems. Here is For Grandma, by Jaki Shelton Green (used by permission from the author):
i heard your voice this morning
speaking from the foot of the bed
your quilt crawled to the
as i lay down in the
first whisper of dawn.
i heard your voice this morning
the sound of cloth
a casual sound
a sunday morning
preparing to visit your lord
half your life
half my life
half my daughter’s life
we all dream of landscapes
connecting us together
a half dozen roses
i play out my life
listening every morning
for your voice
at the foot of the bed.
We are fortunate to have grandmothers and grandfathers in our lives and share the awe that Jaki Shelton Green talks about with such vivid detail in this poem. Woven into our very thoughts at the break of dawn, and in our dreams even. She talks about three generations, “your life, my life, half her daughter’s life”--and that is one of the most pleasurable parts of this poem and this project for us as a family. Meeting weekly to talk about the words that move us, the events that call us to action, the terrifying, the hilarious, the sad, the painful. Listening to the sounds, the voices, the everyday rituals. I think that’s why we have continued to make this a part of our world, AND why we think others may be interested too. Because we believe in the same things that Mrs. Shelton Green believes in...a world where we are all dreaming of landscapes, connecting us together with those who came before and those who will come afterwards. We pause and listen for the voices, the casual day-to-day voices, who beckon us to keep going, to wake up, to prepare, to play out our lives. The sands of time spreading, tiny particles of the shells that have crossed many oceans and broken upon the shores, transformed into new forms-just like our DNA from one generation to the next and to the next. The human particles of love and loss that connect us. The cloth, the quilt, that binds us to each other, every day, as we listen for the voices.
Moving westward to Colorado, the state where I currently live, the Poet Laureate is Bobby LeFebre, appointed by Governor Jared Polis on July 23, 2019. He too believes the role of the Poet Laureate is to serve as a sounding board for poetry...connecting with people through poetry, and advocating for literacy, poetry and human connection. In an interview, Bobby shared his thoughts on the role of the Poet Laureate as a, “...cultural translator and a truth teller...the poet’s job is to distill humanity and messages, to share that with people, to create common bonds; right now, there are so many things pulling us apart, we need things like poetry and poets more than ever. My job is to use poetry as an entry point for larger conversations.”
The New York Times asked poets laureate from across the country what the people in their states had to be thankful for in this difficult year. Here is Bobby LeFebre’s resulting poem, “A Poem of Gratitude From Colorado” (New York Times, November 25, 2020):
“A Poem of Gratitude From Colorado” by Bobby LeFebre:
Here, upon Native land eternal
where the sun takes its daily bow before a Rocky Mountain standing ovation
we hold each other close through times of distance
We tether our hearts to one another in spirit
and decorate, together,
an altar of thanks
Our flowers are plenty:
love, familia, health, work, creator, community, cultura,
resilience, art, abolitionists, education, imagination, clarity,
life, truth, weed, shelter, hikes, magic, growth, green chile,
rebellion, intimacy, voting, progress, tears, tattoos, technology,
pain, music, reflection, friends, stillness, Creator, today.
In a tomorrow sometime soon
we will embrace each other again
time clapping as it stands still
So Dad, when you read this poem, you asked us the question, “When does time stand still?”
I still ask those questions. It’s interesting that without using the word pandemic, he does seem to be referring to all the activities that we normally have engaged in the past. Is it that stillness that has given us pause to think about all of these things that we've taken for granted? One day soon hopefully, we can resume some degree of what we refer to as normalcy and embrace one another, again, without masks. Without the fear of becoming infected. We look forward to that time. We're not quite there yet.
I love the use of the word time clapping, or the idea of the action of clapping. I mean, just one of the basic ways that, you know, we engage with each other, like we clap after performance, we clap for each other. We teach our children how to clap, to play pat-a-cakes. Just a really basic human way of showing each other that we're connected in some way. So I think that's a really interesting choice of words.
Certainly we're all familiar with clapping to the beat of time and music. Every musician learns the importance of the beat and staying on the beat. And whether you're tapping your foot, or clapping your hand, or playing the bass, keeping the beat is powerfully important.
Absolutely. There was a recent interview on NPR that I caught this past week, and they were talking about some recent research in the area of neuroscience. The reporters were connecting our rise in poetry and interest in poetry this past year during the pandemic, and mapping the corresponding brain synapses. The study demonstrated that the brain connects with poetry in the same way that it reacts to music. With some of the poems and the poets we've just talked about, they do both. They recite their poems with lyrics and music to a beat sometimes. It is interesting, the overlap there, and the connection to the human soul. Especially as people turn to poetry, when we are all feeling fear, or we have some greater opportunity to be still and to think about things and be reflective.
Another national Poet Laureate, Robert Frost (1874-1963), also writes frequently about the human desire to set (or break) boundaries. Frost also often uses a simple observation of nature as a starting point in his poems then prompts us to explore a deeper meditation.
President John F. Kennedy, at whose inauguration Robert Frost delivered a poem, said of Robert Frost, "He has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding." And famously, "He saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
Let’s listen to the poem recited at John F. Kennedy's Inauguration by Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright”:
“The Gift Outright” by Robert Frost:
The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
Robert Frost was the first poet to speak at the inauguration of a president, reciting from memory “The Gift Outright,” when the glare of the sun prevented him from reading another poem, “Dedication,” a poem he had written specially for the occasion.
The Gift Outright is characterized by patriotic words and imbued with Frost’s feelings of heroism and shared pride in our country. It also speaks to a theme about how poetry, like humanity, is layered with complexities. The poem focuses on a key American-exceptionalist myth that continues to be a point of conflict today, the story of white settlement. The poem was written by a white man (his middle name was that of the Confederate General, Lee), and is laden with racial and patriarchal assumptions, such as the land owning “we” and omission of the eradication of the Native American culture. Written 20 years before his recital at the inauguration, Frost first uses the word might in the final phrase, “...such as she might become.” He later changes this to “what she WILL become.
So what does this say about American politics and culture? Do we share stories and understanding about our shared history? Can we love our country and pay tribute by continuing to question? Can our poets help us view our past with a critical eye, a compassionate ear, or help us ask new questions about the ability to see each other's hopes, dreams, agonies, burdens and desires and ultimately see ourselves?
Another poet who believes in the role of the Poet Laureate as one of connection, is our current Georgia Poet Laureate, Chelsea Rathburn. Chelsea Rathburn is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently, Still Life with Mother and Knife, a New York Times “New & Noteworthy” book. Still Life with Mother and Knife was named one of the 2019 “Books All Georgians Should Read” by the Georgia Center for the Book. Rathburn’s first full-length collection, The Shifting Line, won the 2005 Richard Wilbur Award, and her second collection, A Raft of Grief, was published by Autumn House Press in 2013.
We have reached out to Chelsea and look forward to interviewing her in a future episode.
Let’s close today’s discussion with one of Chelsea Rathburn’s poems. Here is “Shocks and Changes,” which according to Ms. Rathburn owes its title to Robert Frost’s (another US Poet Laureate), “On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations” (used by permission from the author):
“Shocks and Changes,” by Chelsea Rathburn
Summoned at three, I soothe my daughter's cries
and, turning back toward bed, turn off her light.
Out of the dark, a galaxy appears,
pale stars scattered across the plaster skies
by some other child who thought this room at night
would be his always. The moons, the meteors—
all his hours spent peeling and arranging—
for two years now have hung above my head
entirely unnoticed. The old wives' tale
says all the stars whose light we see are dead,
but that's not true. We fail to see them changing
as they change. And on this closer, human scale
and present tense, this room, this child I've kissed,
this night will always and never quite exist.