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In Defense of the Future L.A. Poet Laureate

In Defense of the Future L.A. Poet Laureate
Joseph Lapin

In August, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the creation of the first-ever Poet Laureate Program, and nominations for the poet are open until 5 p.m. on October 10. The future poet laureate will be announced in October, and the poet will receive a $10,000-annual grant for a two-year term from the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Some Angelenos are wondering: How can you give money to a poet during the Great Recession? What does a poet laureate actually do? Can a poet laureate mend the broken economy with a villanelle or sestina? Can a poet laureate rescue properties from the grip of foreclosure or protect gangs and drug addicts from squatting in blighted homes?

No, a poet laureate can't do any of that. So why, some have been asking, would the city of Los Angeles give $20,000 to a poet? What real substantial and civic value does a poor-old wordsmith bring to our city?

A recent L.A. Times editorial had this to say: "We could question why the mayor and the City Council, in the midst of a budget crisis, are creating and funding a new government post that is not essential -- and we just did -- but their decision follows the growing trend of most every state and thousands of cities, large and small, to establish civic poets."

While the editorial is a tongue-in-cheek take, it still poses some criticism regarding the poet laureateship and the value of such a post to the economic and civic standing of the City of Los Angeles. Clearly, it is difficult for many citizens, economically and financially, in 2012. The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is listed at 13.1 percent, which is well over the national average of 8.1 percent.

But to invest in something as unmarketable as poetry, our city should be commended, because it is a paltry but significant investment and recognition of the arts, specifically poetry, which offers an authentic symbol of a continued dedication to a free and liberated country. It is an appointment by city officials that should be appreciated, because even during times of economic hardship -- maybe even more than ever--a city needs the arts to maintain a healthy community.

"Most of the speech we hear in society today is commercial speech," says Dana Gioia, a poet born in Hawthorne and chair of the Poet Laureate Task Force. "Somebody is trying to sell us something...Certainly, one of the central importances of literature, especially poetry today, is that it stands outside the marketplace of speech as advertising."

The economy of our language, our conversations -- even the words we use on social media, in some way or the other, whether used to brand the self or actually market a product -- is spent trying to converse in the rhetoric of commerce. But poetry, well, it is good for nothing and everything at the same time. As in the words of Walt Whitman, it is language used to "sing the body electric." And it is written by a person whose words and ideas aren't bound by a marketplace.

"Having a poet laureate symbolizes the importance of free speech and language in a democracy," Gioia says. "He or she isn't for sale."

"It's important," Gioia adds, "to keep the power to articulate things that are beyond the marketplace."

Think of the poet laureateship as hiring a teacher, a spokesperson, to connect directly with the community. Gioia understands this need, because he sees himself as a working-class kid from Hawthorne who had a world of possibilities opened to him by his public library. And he sees the poet laureate in a similar vein -- a job destined to change the lives of young citizens who might not be able to envision alternate possibilities.

Gioia explains that the salary is "Basically remuneration for work that is far greater than that small salary reflects...[The poet laureate will] become actively involved in the cultural and educational life of Los Angeles."

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