Karen Heller: Rhyme and reason for a Philadelphia poet laureate

one of New Jersey's many famous poets. Now, Philadelphia plans to honor a poet of its own.
one of New Jersey's many famous poets. Now, Philadelphia plans to honor a poet of its own. (A portrait of Walt Whitman,)
Posted: May 11, 2011

O Philadelphia! My Philadelphia! Rise up and hear the bells! We are getting a poet laureate!

Camden, home of Walt Whitman, will shame us no more.

Mayor Nutter recently announced that Philadelphia - city of clamorous larynx and dexterous middle digits! - will establish through its Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy an official Poet Laureate program. Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer, who will chair the planning committee, "hopes the poet laureate can be announced sometime this fall."

When Nutter first assumed office three years ago, before the economy imploded and governing became the business of cuts and saying no, and beauty languished, he was big on the arts. Also, fun.

The mayor hosted screenings of Sex and the City and The Wire. These works tackled dating, violence, and cruel, costly shoes, but where was the splendor, the sensitivity, the subtle majesty of the English language? True, Philadelphians have been known for their oratorical creativity (see Rizzo, Frank, the father), but still.

Philadelphia, we sometimes forget, is poetry itself:

Shall we compare thee to South Street on a summer morn?

Two roads diverged in Center City, the bike and car lanes, I took the one less traveled by.

Volumes could be written about the transcendence of the Phils' pitching rotation. I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as Cliff Lee.

Philadelphia is rich in material waiting to be mined. Where is our "Howl"?

The job of poet laureate is not without risks, politics, or even litigation.

Samuel Hazo was Pennsylvania's first state poet. He was also our last and only, holding the job for less than a decade until 2003, when his services were no longer required.

New Jersey's poet laureate program was more incendiary, lasting all of three years. Amiri Baraka was halfway through his tenure when he was excoriated for his Sept. 11 poem, "Somebody Blew Up America." Then-Gov. Jim McGreevey tried to fire Baraka, but found no provision to do so. Ultimately, the state Senate abolished the post - also in 2003, a bad year for laureates. The termination inspired four years of legal prose, the case appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a turn of "poetic" justice, in 2004 McGreevey resigned after becoming embroiled in a controversy involving adviser Golan Cipel, who self-published a book of poetry.

Pennsylvanians may joke about New Jersey, but the state has produced many of the nation's greatest poets: Whitman, Allen Ginsberg (author of "Garden State"), William Carlos Williams, C.K. Williams, Stephen Crane, Joyce Kilmer, and Robert Pinsky, as well as rock bard Bruce Springsteen.

Philadelphia is home to many accomplished poets, including Daisy Fried, Bob Perelman, Yolanda Wisher, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Gregory Djanikian, and many others. The committee might consider hybrid artists, such as dancer/poet Plumdragoness of Poet Tree in Motion, or performance poet/artist/siren Ursula Rucker because it would be kind of wonderful to have a poet laureate also known as Supa Sista.

Other nontraditional candidates include Schoolly D, The Roots' Black Thought, or Jill Scott. Blunt, straight-talking Philadelphia lends itself to Ogden Nash-style doggerel, the sort of insights perfected by Bill Cosby, who has never been one to hold his tongue.

The committee will weigh the poet laureate's duties - an ode to the budget? a quatrain for the Mummers? - and compensation, and whether, given the economy, the funds will be privately raised. Already, though, there's some suggestion that the committee may seriously consider celebrated poet Sonia Sanchez, who read last week at City Hall when the laureate program was announced.

Steuer noted that Sanchez was not named to the planning committee, comprising novelist Lorene Cary, Free Library Director Siobhan Riordan, and Kelly Writers House's Al Filreis, among others, so she could be considered for the post.

But selecting a poet laureate, as recent history demonstrates, is not without risk. Poets are, by nature, outsiders and are prized for their honesty and free expression.

Sanchez, a spirited civic leader and arguably the city's most honored poet, is a supporter - as is Rucker - of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, the third rail of Philadelphia politics.

There's always the potential that a poet will be inspired by the city's conflicts, its most troubling moments, rather than, say, the glory of Fairmount Park.

As Steuer tells me, "Art can always be dangerous." Indeed, the best art often is.

Have a poem about Philadelphia? Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.

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