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Monday, May 2, 2016

Poetic Justice

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

SL's Brewer leads search for next Iowa Poet Laureate

Some may have noticed that Governor Vilsack appointed Iowa's second Poet Laureate, Robert Dana, on September 7, as an introduction to the year, "Arts in Iowa."

And some may question the need for or worth of a Poet Laureate.

The office of Poet Laureate, actually a continuation of minstrels and versifiers in court, began in England with a pension granted to Ben Jonson by James I in 1616. The post was made official in 1843 by Queen Victoria with the appointment of William Wordsworth. Subsequent renowned poets appointed to the post include Robert Southey, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Masefield and, most recently, Ted Hughes.

The tradition was taken up in the U.S. in 1915 by the state of California with the lifetime appointment of Ina Coolbirth. Colorado followed in 1919, Nebraska in 1921, Oklahoma in 1923, Georgia in 1925, Kentucky in 1926, and a host of others until 1936. Fairly early on, Iowa appointed a Poet Laureate from 1957-68; however, legislation to establish the position did not become law until 1999, when Marvin Bell became Iowa's "first Poet Laureate."

The position of National Poet Laureate, a two-year term, was established by Congress in 1985 in conjunction with the role of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Robert Penn Warren was the first to hold the post, followed by such famous names as Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Mark Strand. Louise Gluck was the most recent, and Ted Kooser, native of Ames, Iowa and visiting professor at UN-Lincoln was named to the post in August of this year. Kooser, the first Poet Laureate from the Great Plains states, will take up his duties on October 7 with a reading at the Library of Congress.

The committee to select Iowa's new laureate, which I was asked to chair, met in Iowa City on August 13, joined by Humanities Iowa staff members - Christopher Rossi, Lynn Spaight and Erin McGee - Anita Walker from the governor's office, and John Fitzpatrick, President of Humanities Iowa Board of Directors. Committee members included Dr. George Barlow of Grinnell College, Dr. David Hamilton of the University of Iowa, Mr. Thomas Lynner, founder of the Des Moines Poetry Festival, Dr. Debra Marquart of Iowa State University, and Dr. James McKean of Mount Mercy College -well-known poets as well as professors.

The process to select the laureate began earlier in the summer with a telephone conference, during which a chair was selected and a format suggested. We decided to each forward one to six of our top choices with their biographies and selected works. Then, at the meeting in Iowa City, we "discussed" the rationales for our choices and ended with three, which we sent to the governor. I talked by phone with two of the choices, both of whom were "flabbergasted" by the honor.

The both wonderful and confusing particulars for the committee were that Iowa has broad and rich veins of creativity that reflect the culture and heritage of the state and extend to the rest of the country. How does one choose amongst prize-winning, nationally and internationally known voices? Well, we finally did, and Robert Dana received the honor.

Dana, an original member of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, is probably Iowa's "senior" poet. He has lectured in many countries, published broadly and steadily from 1957-present. He taught at Cornell College for 40 years. His awards and grants are many: two NEA grants, a Danforth Grant, a Rinehart Foundation Fellowship, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. His poetry is both personal and universal. He speaks with both an international and Iowa voice:

Pigs blister the hillside. . .

Morning may strike us anywhere . . . .

Above us, wind roars

through the spruce

bearing the heavy

freight of the earth's breathing.

Michael Carey, in Voices from the Prairie,says of Dana that "the tongue and your attention pauses slowly as it passes over each syllable to really feel the contours of the words in much the same way as one is aware of the physical texture of the world."

Perhaps the greatest value of a Poet Laureate is in reminding us of that "physical texture," of keeping us in touch with our place on the earth and in the lyrical scheme of this universe. Robert Frost once said that "a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom." Perhaps Robert Dana will be able to do that for us.

Dana's latest books are Yes, Everything, Summer, and Hello Stranger. He will officiate at state functions and launch a "signature program" to involve secondary students in poetry. He will visit Storm Lake in the near future.