The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 03, 2007

Poets As Challengers of Convention

Bookninja, one of my very favorite Canadian blogs about books, points to an article in the Boston Globe about the search for a new poet laureate for Boston.

FSG's Henri Cole, who lives in Boston's South End and whose new poetry collection Blackbird and Wolf was just released, disagrees with the idea of a poet laureate. Cole is quoted as saying that he "think(s) of poets as challengers of convention . . . Government is a representation of convention. So I think there's a bit of a conflict there."

Well worth a read if you have the time, although I wish that some of Boston's other poets were asked for comments--especially Robert Pinsky, who lives in Boston and was named as United States Poet Laureate in 1997, or Louise Gluck, who lives in Boston and was the US Laureate in 2003, or Frank Bidart, who teachs at Wellesley and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Tell me what you think in the comments below--is poetry meant to be a public position, or is it more appropriate for a poet to remain in a countercultural role?



This is going to sound a little PSA-ish, but anything that helps working poets get their poems read by the widest possible audience is good for poetry. As is controversy over the government's role in promoting poetry, because then many more poets who happen not to be poet laureates can also get exposure. Even publicizing the petty internecine squabbles between poets is a good idea, providing they're public enough. When so many people wouldn't know a respected local poet from their parking commissioner, all news is good news.


I've got to say, with all due respect to Cole, that is just one conception of a poet. The poet as dissident/countercultural firebrand is certainly well established, but there may be a bit of generational myopia in saying that all poets must inhabit that role. Larkin and Hughes both made fine Poet Laureates of England, right down to dutifully composing poems for public occasions. In doing so, I don't think they diminished their status as poets. And both certainly challenged conventions in their own ways.

And what about people like Yeats, Eliot, Wright, Hall, Roethke, Kooser, and on and on and on (and on), who are as likely to provide perspective and clarity on traditions or attempt to preserve vanishing aspects of the past as they are to Fight the Power. Aren't they poets, too?

Hell, what about every poet who ever wrote a poem about some cherished aspect of the land/town/people around them, which is to say, pretty much every poet? There's nothing subversive about that. It's embracing the way things are/were, even if just in some small and specific place and time. Aren't those poems (because I can think of some good ones)?

These poet laureate positions are basically made for cheerleading/boosting poetry. If Coles thinks that would compromise his principles, that's totally cool. And cultural dissident (with tenure!) may well be the conventional role for poets today -- but to say it's the only one smacks of a real unwilligness to, well, challenge convention.


An artist of any kind isn't selling out if they never compromise their orginal intent. Being a poet laureate may interfere with Cole's vision of his career, but provided the person chosen is doing what they love and not changing for the sake of the government then I can't see it being something they shouldn't be proud of.

The only real conflict would be to condemn the position and then accept it when it is offered to you. If, for instance, Billy Bragg were to accept an MBE or CBE from Queen Liz after years of trashing the idea, then THAT would be a true conflict.

I'd like to name this comment "how to get from Henri Cole to Billy Bragg in 30 seconds with no real reason for it."

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