|by Fred Chappell
Note: This article originally appeared in The News & Observer (Raleigh) December 19, 1997 and is reprinted here in different form. This essay may not be reprinted without permission of the writers.
The great modern poet W.H. Auden was so famous for so long that in his latter years he was bored by his own renown. Occasionally he would give his impatience public voice. Once, after a reading, a member of his audience asked him to name and rank in order of importance the top English-language poets currently writing. "Well, you know," he snapped, "It's not a bloody foot race."
The point is important. There is no competition in art; each work is unique, and comparisons should be made among them only to appreciate salient excellences or to make clear the judgments of flaws. After a certain level of performance can be observed, it is mere personal taste that sets one artist over another, that prefers, for example the dandified musical poet Wallace Stevens to the plain spoken, dead-level honest William Carlos Williams. Both poets reward their readers in such grand measure that to compare them for quality will be idle trifling. In no sense were they competitors because that concept simply does not apply in the comparisons of poems.
This fact impressed itself upon me anew when I was transformed, by the grace of Gov. Jim Hunt and a panel of distinguished judges, from familiar old Fred to North Carolina's new poet laureate. Our governor made a flattering speech at the investment ceremony; as is the tradition on such occasions, he overpraised me and my work mercilessly. But what he did not say or suggest, is that Fred Chappell is the best poet in our fair state.
When I averred in my acceptance speech that a hundred other Tar Heel poets could be named to this post, and with equal or greater justice, I only spoke what I know to be the solemn truth. I read widely in the field of contemporary poetry and I do not overlook the work of my fellow North Carolinians. Indeed, it is not possible to overlook it without ignoring some of the liveliest work and most significant achievements in modern letters. Our state is so rich in strong poets that listing them all would take up whole pages of this newspaper.
Louisiana State University Press publishes my poetry, and poetry volumes make up a large part of its output. The director of LSU Press, Leslie Phillabaum, informs me that North Carolina buys more poetry than any other Southern state, more in fact, than any state except those with the largest metropolises, California, New York and Massaschusetts.
The sociologist and literary historian will have to determine why North Carolina has taken such a commanding position in contemporary American letters. W.W. Norton Co. has just published another of its definitive textbooks, "The Literature of the American South," edited by William L. Andrews, Minrose C. Gwin, Trudier Harris and Fred Hobson. The section called "The Contemporary South" includes work published from 1940 to the present and contains contributions by 41 authors. Of these I count 13 who are either native Tar Heels or have significant residential connections. No other state comes close to claiming so many. Of the 13 North Carolina-connected writers, six are poets.
Of the 11 poets chosen from the first 300 years of Southern writing, only one was from North Carolina. This was the courageous and ingenious George Moses Horton, born into slavery and freed only by Lincoln's Proclamation. Having taught himself to read and write, he managed to publish three books of verse during his lifetime while supporting himself in Chapel Hill as "professional poet, waiter and handyman."
For a long period after Horton our poetry actually suffered from those ailments it is sometimes accused, by mostly Northern critics, of harboring now: sentimentality, empty rhetorical flourish, phony folkishness and provincialism.
These are debilities that stem from a cultural situation unfriendly to poetry. As soon as poets were able to have commerce with each other, to exchange ideas and opinions, to debate goals and theories, to take comfort and strength from each other, their work gained stature.
The largest causes for this change are various and affected all other parts of our society as well. The establishment and continuance of the post of poet laureate is but a tiny part of the impetus for our bardic efflorescence. Yet it is symbolically very important, and it is that symbolic aspect that I embrace most warmly.
As poet laureate I am hardly myself at all; I stand as representative for the power of poetry in North Carolina, past, present and future. It is a strange but happy sensation to submerge myself into this symbolic unity, and a paradox has emerged. The less the laureateship celebrates my own efforts and symbolizes North Carolina's communal poetic achievement, the prouder I feel as an individual. Writing is a lonely vocation, but just now I feel part of a large but closely knit family, whose roots reach back to our earliest beginning. Our common ancestor is Sir Walter Raleigh, the poet who founded our state.
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