The recent brouhaha over North Carolina’s poet laureate has died down, but the objections to Gov. McCrory’s choice shouldn’t have surprised anyone familiar with the large and lively community of poets here. Poets’ expectations about who should hold that post might be expected to differ from a politician’s. After all, they care about poetry.
They also have a reputation for prickliness. As Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” brought death threats from Muslim fundamentalists, observed, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it (from) going to sleep.”
Poetry has a rich history here. Some say our first professional poet was George Moses Horton (1797-1883), a slave and self-taught writer whose master sent him to Chapel Hill to sell produce. Horton started selling poems, too – mostly for students to send to their sweethearts. His collection “The Hope of Liberty” was the first book published by a black author in the South.
Many fine poets followed: our first poet laureate, Arthur Talmadge Abernethy (1872-1956), a journalist, minister, novelist and politician; James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981), who was born in a log cabin and claimed he had only 12 months of formal education; Carl Sandburg, who moved to Flat Rock in 1945 (because his wife wanted to raise goats, it is said) and published more than a third of his work while living there; plus A.R. Ammons, Maya Angelou– we could go on, but you get the idea: There’s a bunch of ‘em.
As to the governor’s gaffe, John F. Kennedy once described what might provoke such a conflict: “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.” You might say the system worked.