"...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."
- Editorial in the 25 December 2004 Chapel Hill Herald.
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.