It was surprising to see so many in the audience last Friday, March 15, when all three Missouri poets laureate (note the correct plural form) read some of their works at the Maryville University Auditorium. For the first time ever, all three were in the same room together, and sparks of laughter and delight lit the room. Many people equate poetry with flowery twaddle or moldy literary men studied in a mandatory high school class.Who would guess poets could be so fun, so clever.
Walter Bargen, first poet laureate, led off. He is the quietest of the group, a wordsmith known for pensive poems of nature, of “leaves in their decomposing dreams.” Except he had the crowd laughing at the self-deprecating humor of “Poet as Grand Marshal of the Fall Parade.” Then he read an apparently perennial favorite, “When the Cows Come Home,” a hilarious poem-story of “a dedicated coward” and bovine curiosity.
David Clewell read next as Missouri’s second poet laureate. He is a larger-than-life character, white-bearded as a St. Nick who instead of bringing toys, brings entertaining lengths of poems startling in passionate boldness and biting fun. Yes, he read a poem about tofu. He shoved “The Accomplice” into audience faces and they laughed at his cleverness, because “this poem is counting on your complete cooperation.”
William Trowbridge finished as the current poet laureate. A casual guy wearing a baseball cap, he used the most swear words—an earthy poet disguised as a mild-mannered grandfather. The audience approved an irreverent Missouri state poem he didn’t have to write (not a requirement anymore for poets laureate). Did you know Missouri was the home of “Jesse James’ feather duster of death” and the “nuclear waste adventure trail”? Trowbridge rapped a poem and noired one, too—“I’m a flyboy from the infantry of love.” How’s that for a pickup line.
The really good poets nowadays don’t usually rhyme, they write verse freed from such stiff constraints. They don’t plant flowery words just to make pretty talk. They write about all sorts of things, not just love and stars in the sky. Hearing a good poem read well can shatter all stereotypes of poetry. You may discover a poem "has you exactly where it wants you."*
The two-year position of Missouri poet laureate is up for grabs this fall. Published poets can apply to the Missouri Center for the Book when the time comes. Mr. Trowbridge suggests poets just “go for it, and maybe they’ll choose someone who is not an old white guy.”
*from “The Accomplice,” by David Clewell