For a job that doesn’t pay a dime, and could arguably be called “self-financed,” it must have something going for it: The fact that it’s now open to applicants is getting talked up even in Australia, and the man who held it the longest refused to hand over the title until, as he remarked about someone else, “he made friends with Death, and left!”
California is in the market for a new poet laureate. With an official state dirt, a state fossil and a state tartan, we need a state bard. And as a blue state, it’s our obligation to demonstrate that airport bookstore thrillers and bodice-rippers are not the alpha and omega of literature and that just because poetry usually comes in slim volumes with even slimmer royalty checks doesn’t mean it don’t kick heinie. A truly contemporary poetry talent search would be a phone-in-your-vote faux reality show, not inappropriate considering that the state’s last poet laureate, Quincy Troupe, resigned in 2002 because, like that Notre Dame football coach and the CEO of Bausch & Lomb, he fudged something on his resume.
But the law and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have something more decorous in mind. (When I asked what poets Schwarzenegger favored, I was told he wouldn’t say for fear of influencing or having a “chilling effect” on the selection. And I thought Rilke was dead.) Candidates must not only meet a Jan. 31 deadline but be:
* A recognized poet of stature. Greeting-card verses won’t cut it.
* A California native, or someone with at least 10 years in the state -- we’re pretty loose about that “native” thing. Still, this is a job that won’t be outsourced.
* Not shy. Six public gigs a year, minimum, because poetry lives on the lips and not just on the page. If you’re channeling Emily Dickinson, don’t waste the postage.
* Not a starving poet. This pays nothing, probably not even mileage. “Quite possibly,” mused one of the governor’s spokes-minions, Terri Carbaugh, “a poet laureate may step up to the plate and volunteer.”
Quite possibly the governor or some rich pal could step up and volunteer a few bucks. It’s a crummy mixed message about art and literacy in a nation that rewards what it regards most highly. The nation’s poet laureate gets a $35,000 stipend, which is low-end income even for a Manhattan dog walker. Britain’s poet laureate receives wine; couldn’t Napa Valley spare a jeroboam for bragging rights as “the official syrah of the poet laureate of California”?
* Willing to abide by term limits. The state’s longest-serving laureate -- 34 years of thumpety-thumping verse -- was Gus Garrigus, a Reedley assemblyman who must have believed Shelley’s line about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, and decided on his own that legislators must be the unacknowledged poets of mankind too. He was never published, but his fellow politicians thrilled to: “The lark, the nightingale, the thrush / Have nurtured poets with lyric mush / But sweetest of all woodland notes / Are in the words, ‘He’s got the votes.’ ”
What the state’s next poet laureate will not be:
* Someone who hears “trochee” and thinks “Truckee.” Truckee is an old railroad town in the Sierra. Trochee is one kind of poetic meter [DA dum DA dum DA dum DA].
* Someone whose body of work begins with lines like, “A lass who hailed from Petaluma.... “
* Someone who thinks “lyrics” and “poetry” are always one and the same thing. Fresno’s William Saroyan isn’t eligible because he’s dead, but even if he weren’t, the fact that he wrote the lyrics to the appalling 1951 hit song “Come On-a My House” would finish him as my candidate. Anticipating the outcry over disqualifying Long Beach’s Snoop Dogg and Bakersfield’s Merle Haggard, who’s got the vote of a Sacramento newspaper writer, I solicited Dana Gioia, Hawthorne native, highly regarded California poet, now head of the National Endowment for the Arts: “I believe there is a fundamental difference between song and poetry although the two art forms are deeply related. If California chose a songwriter as its first modern poet laureate, that would be a cultural statement that would override everything else. My feeling is the pop song has so much presence in our culture, and poetry has so little, that it would be a missed opportunity to appoint a songwriter.” In other words, isn’t going platinum enough?
On the bright side of “unpaid,” not taking the governor’s shilling means not having to take the governor’s politics. The White House canceled a poetry symposium after thousands of poets -- including some of the nation’s laureates -- wrote antiwar poems. California’s next laureate is free to rag on the state arts budget being hacked to sushi -- 50th out of 50 states -- nine cents per Californian, compared with a national average of $1.15.
Yet our laureate might rather, like Britain’s, turn out breaking-news poetry for big events, mindful that this is the age of sound bite, not sonnet. Something like a haiku for the Schwarzenegger inauguration:
Recalled to life, now
Political muscle bound
Thank you, thank you, I’ll be signing copies later in my garret.