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,
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.