May 05, 2010, 11:39AM

Room With A View

A former poet laureate talks about life on the inside.

For a very brief period in my life I interned at the Office of the Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. I never met the poet laureate at the time, Charles Simic, but I do enjoy his work, and was happy to find out that he, as well as other former laureates, contributed a short essay to the New York Review of Books blog:

It never crossed my mind that I would become the poet laureate of the United States. The day I received the call from the Library of Congress, I was carrying a bag of groceries from the car to the house when the phone rang. They didn’t beat around the bush, but told me straight out that this was an honor and not a job they were offering to me. Of course, I was stunned, and without letting the groceries out of my hand, told them that I needed to think about it for a while and that I would call them back tomorrow. My first thought was, who needs this?

For a period of my life slightly longer than that spent at the Poetry Office, I wanted to be a professional poet. Cracking into such an industry is about as difficult as being a professional journalist. I remember collating a bunch of my poems and sending them, along with a check for a modest entry fee, to some important looking Poetry Contest. And I won! And then I had to pay a lot more money to even see a copy of my "winning entry" in print. And then I realized it was all bullshit. I was in the sixth grade at the time and stung that my folks obviously knew what was going on but ignored the fact that I was a grown-ass man, and even though I nursed my poetry phase well through to college I never really considered the amateur poetry world to have any sort of accessible credibility. It all seemed opaque, bereft of logic. (So, of course, I got into journalism, where no one is hired or promoted if he or she doesn't deserve it.)

But in his blog post, Simic sounds off on the state of modern poetry:

In a country in which schools seem to teach less literature every year, where fewer people read books and ignorance reigns supreme regarding most issues, poetry is read and written more than ever. Anyone who doesn’t believe me ought to take a peek at what’s available on the web. Who are these people who seem determined to copy almost every poem ever written in the language? Where do they find the time to do it? No wonder we have such a large divorce rate in this country. I won’t even describe the thousands of blogs, the on-line poetry magazines, both serious ones and the ones where anyone can post a poem their eight-year daughter wrote about the death of her goldfish.

I can certainly empathize with the goldfish euology. Perhaps the proudest moment of my non-existent career as a poet occured when, years and year after I had written it, the young daughter of a collegaue of my father's read my—my—euology for my dead hermit crab (RIP Hermy) at the funeral of her hermit crab also named Hermy.

More to the point, though, is that Simic touches on the wonderful, burgeoning truth about All Things Internet: It really is a wonderful tool for pretty much every walk of life, pursuit, fetish, outlet, mania and type loneliness we have a name for and then some.

The role of the Poet Laureate is to lead, in his or her own way, an agenda of learning, of language, of words and the negative spaces around them. But taking stock of where you came from is as important as where you're going. In Simic's case, he didn't come from a world full of blogs like these. He was, however, the Nation's Poet in the middle of all this; it's heartening to know that he knows that:

The obvious next question is how much of it is any good? More than one would ever imagine. America may be going to hell in every other way, but fine poems continue to be written now and then. Still, if poetry is being written and being read now more than ever, it must be because it fulfills a profound need. Where else but in poems would these Americans, who unlike their neighbors seem unwilling to seek salvation in church, convey their human predicament? Where else would they find a community of likeminded souls who care about something Emily Dickinson or Billy Collins has written? If I were asked to sum up my experience as the poet laureate, I would say, there’s nothing more interesting or more hopeful about America than its poetry.


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