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Poets & ‘Laureates’ In 19th-Century England, Shelley, Byron, and Keats were writing incomparable verse; Robert Southey, the poet laureate, was cranking out flat, pretentious praises of George III. In 20thCentury Texas, Houstonian Vassar Miller was selling her carefully-wrought poems to Wesleyan University Press, publishers of James Dickey and Marge Piercy; the state’s poet laureate that year produced a paean to a puppy. The legislature has been naming a poet laureate every year since 1931, but it wasn’t until last year that anyone except perhaps the laureate’s family gave the honor much thought. Rep. Bob Simpson of Amarillo began to suspect that the position was something less than a signal honor. He took a close look at the process of choosing the laureate. It works like this: a poet laureate committee comes up with two poets laureate and two alternates for each biennium. They do not ask for nominations from the public, and they often choose poets from the Texas Poetry Society, a long-establsihed group that is not exactly in the poetic vanguard. Also, Simpson noticed, there is “a high correlation between the residences of the legislators \(on the comlaureate.” Simpson also wanted to know how the poet laureate is honored. He found that he or she gets the title for the year, and that’s it no money, no commissioned work, no handshake of the governor, not even a pink granite paperweight. Just the title. As Austin publisher Dave Oliphant put it, “None of us have ever paid any attention to it because it didn’t mean anything.” Simpson set out to make it mean something. As a member of the poet laureate committee appointed this fall, he persuaded the committee to call for nominations and to hold a public hearing to gather ideas about how to choose and to honor the poet laureate. Austin Bessie Mass Rowe, 1967 The response was thoughtful and enthusiastic. Twenty-one poets have been nominated, and the hearing drew, among others, the Texas Commission on the Arts poet-in-residence, Susan Bright, and Paul Foreman of Thorp Springs Press. Participants at the hearing suggested asking university poets-inresidence and Texas writers’ organizations to help choose the laureate, commissioning the laureate to write a long poem about Texas, and inviting nominated poets to read their work to the committee. Some at the hearing argued for taking the poet laureate decision away from the Legislature, but Foreman noted that it might be a good thing for politicians and literary types to choose the laureate together. The committee members are mulling over the hearing testimony before their next meeting; meanwhile the list of nominated poets grows. It is a promising list. Here is a sampling of work by three nominees: Forests of fir, and boughs bowed down with snow I never knew; but these are woods I know: the bleak Cross Timbers wet in haggard rain, december in them, a gray hanging stain among the naked crookedness of limbs; the acorn clusters, dangling hollow brims upon the dwarf postoak; green catbrier drawn like wretched wire fencing the woebegone. William Barney I listen to my next-door neighbor scuffling about like a dry leaf. She once had a body like mine that, rotting with its ripeness, falls from the branch of morning to sullen floor of sleep. Vassar Miller Going up a winding dirt road like a river, the baby in a carrier on my back, I am like a slow swimmer I quiver to the sharp pine smell I move toward the frail sounds of the owl My eyes are drunk with shadows. Joseph Colin Murphey Unlike Texas, England appoints its poets laureate for life. After Robert Southey died, the British crown was wise enough to name William Wordsworth, and then Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poets laureate. Perhaps Texas, too, will make its poet laureate spot an important honor for carefully chosen poets. Seven Poems By Gary Edmondson The Fire Hole There have been others. We are not the first to glide In circles on this still-packed earth. The house stood here. The well, there. And here’s the fire hole, Smoking in the memories of ghosts Who gathered around other fires To sing and retell the lie s The ,fires have drawn forth forever. One fiddle, not quite tuned, But close enough to draw the squares And rounds. And ’round and ’round the dancers fly. Listen. They were loud enjoyers. Their hoots and shouts still linger Above their stomped-smooth dance floor. Little girls not knowing what, but wanting mightily Hungrily watch their delicious sisters Slip into the shadows below the house. Even then the shadows hold other dancers, Circling to a lonely drum, poorly stretched, But tight enough to hold the beat And keep the feet circling, Ever circling on the well-packed earth before the fire hole. Religion, and what love isn’t, must dance. Come with me to the fire hole. And, after the lies are retold, I’ll poorly hum a waltz As we glide into the shadows. Continued on page 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7 By Nina Butts Whether the family go near or far, A little dog rides in the back of the car. A little brown dog with a spot on his nose, With a little pink tongue, and little brown toes. It is queer that one dog could give so much joy, For that dog is the pal of a dear little boy.