I hoped I’d made that word up, but no such luck: poets can be laureated, making them poets laureate, and the act of doing so is laureation. The dictionary says so.
Laureation, specifically the laureation of poets, is enjoying a resurgence on Martha’s Vineyard these days. Well, more accurately it’s a surgence, since I don’t believe we’ve experienced one before. Aha! Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged (online) doesn’t list “surgence,” and “surgency” means something different: “a personality factor characterized by quickness and cleverness.” Maybe I’ve made up a word after all.
At any rate, I’ve been wondering what it all means.
Some years ago West Tisbury named Dan Waters its poet laureate and all was right with the world. Dan was the town’s poet laureate before anyone thought of creating the position. The trouble came when it came time to name his successor. His successor was a fine poet, but West Tisbury’s poet laureate? I recognized her name but I couldn’t have quoted a line from one of her poems or even said anything intelligent about her work. It wasn’t, in other words, part of my Vineyard life.
The poet laureate thing has proliferated. Last December, Edgartown got a poet laureate, Steve Ewing. I like what I’ve seen of Steve Ewing’s poems, and I like his attitude even more. His reaction to his appointment? As quoted in the Vineyard Gazette, “I don’t know what to say,” said Mr. Ewing. “I’m really honored. Poet laureate is kind of a fancy term . . . I’m just a local kid who likes to write.”
Now Martha’s Vineyard has one too. I went to hear him read the other night. His name is Lee Mccormack. He’s a very good and dedicated poet. If Martha’s Vineyard has to have a poet laureate, Lee is at least as worthy as any. Besides, he’s one of the first poets I heard read after I moved here. Back then he was one of the Savage Poets of Martha’s Vineyard, along with the late George Mills and Michelle Gerhard, now Jasny, who is also Travvy’s vet and the author of the Visiting Veterinarian column in the Martha’s Vineyard Times.
Isn’t it cool, all this attention being paid to poets, and poetry? It must mean that poetry is alive and well on Martha’s Vineyard, right?
I don’t think so. I suspect that this poet laureate proliferation is a sign that poetry on Martha’s Vineyard is so feeble that it has to be propped up with titles. Unlike the poets laureate of West Tisbury and Edgartown, who have been quietly appointed by their respective boards of selectman, the selection of the whole island’s poet laureate was surrounded by considerable hoop-de-do. First, as I understand it, came the establishment of the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society. Then came appearances before various regional boards. Eventually judges were chosen, submissions solicited from aspiring laureates, and various stages gone through, leading eventually to Lee’s selection as Martha’s Vineyard’s first poet laureate.
Where will it all go from here? Will poetry become more visible in the island’s public life? Will more people be reading, listening to, and maybe even writing, poetry? That remains to be seen.
Once upon a time, I belonged to a community, a movement, where poetry was very much a part of public life: the grassroots feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Poetry books were bought and read by non-poets and non-students. Many poets were household names: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, Ntozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, Marge Piercy, Muriel Rukeyser — I could go on and on and on. We called their poems “survival literature,” and we meant it literally.
Wrote the poet Marina Tsvetaeva in the mid-1930s: “From a world where my poems were as necessary as bread, I came into a world where no one needs poems, neither my poems nor any poems; where poems are needed like — dessert; as if anyone needs dessert.” The world she had left was Russia; the world she had come into was France. Tsvetaeva’s words were widely quoted in my old world. Were poems as “necessary as bread” in that world? Not all poems, and not all the time, but necessary enough that I know what that feels like.
Yesterday afternoon I participated in The World of Troubadours and Trobairitz, the third annual incarnation of a program dedicated to the poems, songs, and music of southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Though the program itself, like its predecessors, was much appreciated by those who attended, no one is likely to consider it “as necessary as bread”: given the bright weather, it’s not surprising that more people hungered for the beach than for an hour or so at Katharine Cornell Theatre. To their singers and composers, though, these songs and poems were sustenance indeed, expressions of grief or joy or triumph and often a medium for communicating and commenting on the news of the day.
Likewise the slave songs that I’ve been singing with Jim Thomas’s Spirituals Choir. Our audiences often find the program interesting, educational, and inspiring, but to the slaves who sang them in the decades and centuries before Emancipation they were “necessary as bread.”
So what’s “necessary as bread” to us? What are the arts — poetry? fiction? nonfiction? song? chamber or orchestral music? theater? film? TV? photography? painting? — that we can’t live without? Social media are indispensable to many of us; does that make them art forms? (Speaking of which, if you’re on Facebook, check out Laureate Lee Mccormack’s page. His running commentary on the world we live in may not be indispensable, but it’s definitely an aid to my survival.) What shapes our view of the world and the place we take up in it?