The governor’s pick for poet laureate has caused some head-scratching in North Carolina literary circles — but for all the wrong reasons.
Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday named Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as the next “ambassador of North Carolina literature,” and he chose to do so without input from the North Carolina Arts Council. Historically, the council has sought nominees and assembled a panel of poets to make a recommendation to the governor.
The Charlotte Observer’s book review editor, Dannye Romine Powell, reported that McCrory’s announcement caught the arts council off-guard. Powell wrote Sunday on her Reading Matters blog that McCrory “completely bypassed the time-honored process of selecting this prestigious position.”
McCrory, however, believes Macon is the right woman for the job.
“North Carolina, with a centuries-old history of cultivating artistic and literary talent, eagerly anticipates Macon’s service,” McCrory said in a Friday statement. “I look forward to the unique perspective and style she will bring to the office.”
Artists and poets are an opinionated bunch, and there’s sure to be plenty of debate over whether McCrory should have followed established procedures to select the poet laureate and whether Macon is the right choice.
Great gab for the rumor mill at poetry readings — and maybe even fodder for a sprightly limerick. But the bigger issue at hand is whether North Carolina ought to have a poet laureate at all.
The honoree serves for two years and receives a $10,000 stipend. To be sure, it’s a largely symbolic role rather than a cushy government post replete with a well-appointed office and all the trappings. But it still amounts to a state endorsement of an artist’s work, and that’s something that should give us pause.
Art is a matter of taste, and taste is inherently subjective. A bright fresco that some find stirring can strike others as bland. Some of the most influential figures in the beat poetry movement of the 1960s and ’70s were branded as obscene.
As Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan famously wrote, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
Government shouldn’t be in the business of expressing artistic preferences. That goes not only for picking poets laureate, but for awarding grants that take subject matter into account. Art enriches our lives, but it should largely be left up to individual patrons and private groups, not elected officials, to underwrite worthy projects.
Maya Angelou, who died May 28 in Winston-Salem, is North Carolina’s most celebrated — and arguably most important — figure in contemporary poetry. While she was known informally as America’s poet laureate, she never held the official post of poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. She also never held the title in the Tar Heel State.
Angelou’s work wasn’t diminished by the absence of a state seal on her letterhead. Her influence wouldn’t have been magnified tenfold if a governor or president had bestowed an honorary title.
If anything, Angelou’s independence helped make her work more authentic and relevant.
The enduring resonance of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” shows us that the power of the written word can surpass political power. North Carolina doesn’t need a government-anointed poobah of poetry.