Friday, March 7, 2008

Missouri Poet Laureate Presentation, Given by Kevin Prufer at the MAC Awards Ceremony, 2/13/08

Speech—Missouri Poet Laureate Presentation

Because we are here to celebrate Missouri and the arts, I promise from the outset that I will mention only one New Yorker today: 150 years ago, when Missouri was part of the relatively sparsely populated frontier, Walt Whitman looked westward and announced that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” These are famous words not merely because they express patriotism or idealism, but because they tell us something about the responsibility American poets—and artists of every kind—would always carry with them. Cultures, Whitman recognized, have lived and died throughout human history. Great ones, however, are remembered because of their literature, for literature—and for him, most dearly, poetry—not only defines a people for themselves, but preserves that people, their character and ideals, their beliefs and sorrows, for those who come afterwards. For Whitman, the relatively young United States was an unprecedented opportunity to forge something new, something different from what had preceded it in the old country. When he looked at the United States and called it “the greatest poem,” he didn’t see in it a completed thing, but a vast, complex, and lovely work in progress—a work that, to this day, he would say, is still being written. If we are to know who we are and where we are going—if we are to be remembered in the distant future—we need to encourage this and, therefore, advocate a little bit for poetry.

I’m so glad that we’re here today to do just that. Missouri has an unusually rich poetic tradition. We’ve been the home of T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Howard Nemerov and Mona Van Duyn. If we broaden the definition a bit, we’ve also been home to such poetic visionaries as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and Stanley Elkin—which is to say we’ve more than pulled our weight. And today, Missouri has far more actively publishing, prizewinning poets; more literary publishers; more poetry reading series than we have any right to claim. It’s about time, then, that we also had a Poet Laureate.

Because one thing we’re probably not that good at yet is bringing some of that richness to the people who live and work beyond our universities and our big cities. Whitman, whom I wish I could claim for Missouri, also famously told us that “To have great poets, there must be great audiences”—and one of the things our new Poet Laureate program will do is bring those two together a little bit more.

And this is precisely why Walter Bargen is a perfect choice for our first Poet Laureate. Walter is, first of all a very fine writer—a writer of distinction whose work is subtle, skillful and wise but, at the same time, accessible to any reader who would take the time to look closely. He’s written a dozen books, received national awards for his work and the following of many of his peers. And, just as importantly, Walter Bargen is a brilliant communicator about poetry. He’s been not only an actively publishing poet for decades, but he’s also been working in the community, promoting the art of poetry and Missouri poets to wide audiences, hosting and organizing poetry readings, talking to children about why poetry ought to matter to them, and, with unflagging energy and generosity, serving as a valuable link between Missouri poets and Missouri readers. As Missouri Poet Laureate, he will be further enabled to do what he has already done so well for so many years.

It is, of course, a well-deserved honor for Walter Bargen that he has been named our Poet Laureate. What is also the case, however, is that it is an honor for we Missourians to have him as our Poet Laureate—because he will not only continue to write fine poems—he’d do that anyway—but because he will do a fine job promoting and articulating the value of poetry to us, lest we forget.

Mark Teiderman, Center for the Book, Speech given at the MAC Awards Ceremony and Poet Laureate Presentation

Thank you and welcome.

I’m Mark Tiedemann, President of the board of directors of the Missouri Center for the Book. Many of my fellow board members are here today for this occasion. I’d like to ask them to stand now and be acknowledged.

Since 1993, the Center has worked diligently to promote what we call the community of the book in the state of Missouri, and among the finest programs with which we’ve been involved is this, the position of our newly created State Poet Laureate.

On behalf of the Missouri Center for the Book and the Community of the Book at large, I would like to thank you, Governor Matt Blunt, for establishing this post and for inviting the Center to assist in the selection of Missouri’s first Poet Laureate.

Members of the Missouri Center for the Book board, along with members of the governor’s staff, made up the selection committee that provided the final list from which the governor made his choice. All three of my selection committee members are here and if I may ask them to stand once more. Kevin Prufer, Kris Kliendeinst, and Sue Thomas have given exceptional service and we are all justly proud of them.

I would also like to express my deep appreciation to the Missouri Arts Council for its support, generosity, and timely assistance during the establishment of this program. Missouri Arts Council will support the Poet Laureate position through an honorarium and travel expenses.

Although I am a writer, I find myself at a loss to express how pleased and honored I feel to be here now, at this occasion, which goes to the heart of Missouri Center for the Book’s mission. We who love books have all experienced a moment in our lives when the wonders of the universe seemed to open for us through the written word. As unique and individual as that experience is, it has the ability to join us in a way like no other. Because we discover what it is to touch the fire sparked by the intellect and creativity of other people, and we recognize that fire within ourselves. That is what we mean when we say Words Live.

Unfortunately, for many people, youth passes, the necessities of adulthood steal our time, and we forget. We need reminding.

Which is why the importance of naming of a Poet Laureate cannot be measured, since in it is the very public act of reminding us. Reminding us that we are all still that twelve-year-old who found worlds in words. It says that what our storytellers, word weavers, literary architects, our Poets offer is valuable and should not be overlooked or forgotten. Through this act, a door will be opened for those who have not yet discovered what we here have, and reopened for many who may have forgotten what they once cherished.

I am especially pleased by the man chosen to be our first State Poet Laureate, Walter Bargen. I would like now to turn the podium over to Kevin Prufer, chair of the selection committee, to tell you something about Walter and the Poet Laureate Position.