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Prose Ode to My Friend the Poet Laureate

November 18, 2008 |  6:05 am

This doggerel no doubt would make her blush;
I should therefore zip up my lip and hush
And not resort to fortune-cookie verse
To praise a friend whose work’s both lush and terse.

Okay, I’ll better stop right there and render the rest of this in prose.

Carol Muske-Dukes has published seven books of poetry, four novels and two collections of essays. She’s also a USC English professor.

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has just named her to be California’s new poet laureate.

Her latest novel, a best-seller called "Channeling Mark Twain," is about an idealistic young woman poet who teaches writing to women behind bars. It’s something Carol actually did and hopes perhaps to do again.

She is a believer in the transformational power of poetry –- after all, it’s the medium of joy and of solace; it’s the form of expression that even the untutored turn to in times of crisis and triumph. "I’m looking forward," she emailed me, "to setting up a project -- maybe something like `Poetry in the Prisons,’ or a project for kids in the tradition of the ancient troubadours -- singing poems!"

Until 2001, the choice of poet laureate was left to the Legislature, which chose … a fellow legislator, Assemblyman Gus Garrigus. Shelley wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind; Garrigus evidently believed the reverse was true, too. Here’s a sample of his work:

The lark, the nightingale, the thrush
Have nurtured poets with lyric mush
But sweetest of all woodland notes
Are in the words, ‘He’s got the votes.’

Said someone with a poetry society who was offended by the Garrigus appointment, "He wouldn’t know an ode if it hit him in the face." They had to pry the title almost literally from the cold, dead, ink-stained fingers of Garrigus, who had never been published, and who was really more qualified to be doggerelist laureate. He must have been quite a lobbyist; he held on -- yes, doggedly -- to the title for about 35 years, until his death.

There were no term limits when Garrigus was around. There are now, even for poets laureate; the title is currently held for two years. While it is accompanied by a small stipend -- poets are used to small stipends -- California should step up and match the more romantic compensation that England's poet laureate received: a small check and, once a year, a barrel of sherry, a tradition begun with Albion's first poet laureate, John Dryden.

California’s wines are surpassingly great and could inspire any poet to even better work. Gov. Schwarzenegger, may I suggest a case of pinot noir from the Russian River?

Congratulations, Carol, and if this works, pour me a glass from the first bottle!

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