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Can The Occasional Poem Outlive The Occasion?

“I wish I'd been better able to resist the sense of obligation to write some of the poems I did. It's in the nature of commissioned work to be written too much from the side of your mind that knows what it's doing, which dries up the poetry. Pretty much the day I stopped being laureate, the poems that had been few and far between came back to me, like birds in the evening nesting in a tree.” Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate of England 1999-2009 (The Guardian)

 

Introduction by Marie Harris

During my tenure as New Hampshire Poet Laureate, I co-produced the first-ever gathering of state poets laureate and it was then I began to consider the public, or commissioned poem in another light. And as I read some of the work produced by laureates as part of their public role, I wondered if such poems could outlast their occasions. I enlisted the assistance of former Virginia PL, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, to gather a range of responses to that question.

All challenge the common assumption that commissioned work must be, by definition, hack work.

State legislatures that create the positions of Poet Laureate are often vague on the matter of the PL's responsibilities, and in New Hampshire, for instance, although there is no expectation that laureates compose poems for state occasions, they are often asked to do so. In my case, our Commissioner for Cultural Resources, Van McLeod, asked me to do just that three times: twice for gubernatorial inaugurals and once to commemorate the minting of the NH quarter. With pleasure I took on the task of crafting a poem to celebrate the inauguration of New Hampshire's first female governor to her third term. I think it both fulfilled its mission and held its own apart from the ceremony. Then, with trepidation I approached the challenge of marking the inauguration of a governor whose political views could not have been more antithetical to my own. I now count “New Year, New Hampshire” as one of my best poems (printed in HHR, v.3 n.4 ), And the quarter poem is, in my opinion, worth every penny of its two bits.


Like many poets, I've written a number of occasional poems to mark births and deaths, marriages and anniversaries. And I've concluded that, while it is possible for me to write a “good” poem on demand, most often the results remain on bookmarks and notecards, mementos only.


So it was with no small measure of curiosity that Carolyn and I approached a group of state laureates, former and present, and put the question to them. Several laureates had chosen either not to write on demand, or to limit their efforts to the event they were commemorating. Others took the opportunities to explore subjects they might not have considered. All challenge the common assumption that commissioned work must be, by definition, hack work. Regardless, their answers are, along with their poems, thoughtful and thought-provoking, sometimes politically charged. Some of the laureates even experienced surprising epiphanies. In Carolyn's case, the poem she was tasked to write for the Friends of the Dragon Run, an environmentally fragile ecosystem, triggered profound personal, political and artistic changes in her life. Can the occasional poem outlive the occasion? Time's capsule will tell.

 

“January Thaw” by Marie Harris New Hampshire Poet Laureate 1999-2004

On the occasion of the inauguration of NH Governor Jeanne Shaheen to her third term, January 4, 2001 The meager light is charged with sudden warmth that tempts the buds on the brittle branch and softens pond ice, releasing a hint of a scent of spring. This seditious weather undermines winter's dictatorship: its puppet government of cold, its dark decrees. A turn in the wind carries the news: there is nothing cast in stone or ice or precedent that cannot be chiseled, molded or changed. In such a climate hope and opportunity abound; fresh purpose will emerge as surely as snowdrops elbowing the frozen ground.

 


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