Welcoming Autumn and Poet Laureates

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Of all the many anticipated events of autumn, I am sure there are none more eagerly awaited than the beginning of a new term of our national poet laureate.

Even The Onion commemorates the occasion with its article, “Distressed Nation Turns to Poet Laureate for Solace,” which aptly portrays the vital role the poet laureate serves in the U.S. Here’s an excerpt:

Despondent citizens from across the country began gathering this weekend outside the Fresno home of 83-year-old Philip Levine, the California State University professor and poet who in less than two weeks will assume the widely celebrated title, beginning a yearlong term in which all Americans will turn their gaze upon him in search of hope and guidance.

“We’ve long relied on our poet laureates as a beacon of hope in times of trouble,” said 55-year-old car mechanic Chuck Burgess, who traveled from Minneapolis to keep vigil alongside the many thousands waiting for the sagely Levine to emerge from his two-story ranch house and take up his new mantle. “Their masterfully crafted verses and subtle explorations of interiority dispel the nation’s fears in a way that nothing else can.”

“Right now, America is eagerly anticipating his words,” added Burgess, later saying that he’s been tracking Levine’s work ever since it won the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1981. “We’re counting on the discursive lyricism and shifting postures of fractiousness for which Mr. Levine’s poems are renowned to lift our spirits.”

To mark the transition of the poet laureate, who holds this honorary title from October to May and receives a stipend to continue creating, here is a masterfully crafted poem from our former poet laureate W.S. Merwin:

Note

Remember how the naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing

then for a time it will not run
with its old freedom
like a light innocent of measure
but will hearken to how
one story becomes another
and will try to tell where
they have emerged from
and where they are heading
as though they were its own legend
running before the words and beyond themselves
naked and never looking back

through the noise of questions.

And one with plenty of discursive lyricism from our incoming poet laureate, Philip Levine from Detroit, who says of his work over the years, “Anger was a major engine in my poetry. It’s been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”

Our Valley

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

Merwin and Levine, goodbye and hello.

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