God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jumpshot
on a reservation summer basketball court where the ball is moist with sweat,
and makes a sound when it swishes through the net
that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect.
— From Alexie Sherman’s “Defending Walt Whitman”
In just over a week, March Madness will give way to National Poetry Month, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on April 1. Write a poem. Light some candles. Shout it from the mountain top. But don’t ask Michigan’s poet laureate to recite a poem. We don’t have one — but it’s not for lack of trying.
Poets across the state have been asking the legislature and governor for years to establish the post. They’ve come close a couple times, with bills moving through the legislature but then hitting a wall.
Eight local poets, members of the Lansing Poetry Club, are once again rallying poetry enthusiasts to make the case for a state poet laureate. On March 31, the eve of National Poetry Month, the group will read poems with the theme “Michigan, My Michigan” in the lobby of Lansing City Hall. The event, which is free and open to the public, kicks off at 7 p.m.
Poet Dennis Hinrichsen, who taught literature and poetry at Lansing Community College, has been a longtime advocate for a state poet laureate.
“Michigan has some fabulous poets,” he said. “A poet laureate would help get kids and teachers involved in poetry, rather than just reading poems in class. You could integrate poetry into other disciplines, get kids to be creative, to be more open minded and more flexible. Poetry requires a different kind of reading than a Facebook page.”
Hinrichsen, a Lansing resident, has authored of several books of poetry. His most recent, “Skin Music,” was released in December. For the March 31 event, Hinrichsen will read a poem that reflects on his 30 years of living two blocks from the Grand River.
“In 30 years, I have crossed it (in a car), paddled it and walked across it,” he said. “The motion of the water has always been with me.”
Other poets reading at the event are Ruelaine Stokes, Joyce Benvenuto, Meecha Griffin, Dan Matson, Drew Prosch-Jensen, Suzanne Love, Paige Sawdy and Eric Crosley. Lansing Poetry Club member Len Petersen will make a presentation on the history of the club, which was founded in 1938.
The poetry event is presented in conjunction with the Historical Society of Greater Lansing’s latest installment of its rotating City Hall exhibit, “Lansing Has Fun.” In April, the exhibit celebrates Lansing clubs, societies and fraternal groups. The Poetry Club is one of Lansing’s oldest active civic groups.
Most states, 45 out of 50, to be exact, have a poet laureate position. But you have to go back to the mid-1950s to find Michigan’s first — and only — poet laureate.
English-born poet Edgar A. Guest (1881-1959), who held that honor, wrote a poem a day for the Detroit Free Press from the 1920s to the 1950s. His poems often found their way into scrapbooks and plastered on refrigerators. Guest, however, never attained the popularity of another Michigan poet, Will Carleton (1845-1912) who was often called “the farmer’s poet” or the “poet of Michigan.”
A Michigan native and graduate of Hillsdale College, Carleton’s popularity skyrocketed after the publication of “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse,” which described the conditions in the local poorhouse. During his heyday, Carleton was also publisher of his own literary journal, humbly titled “Will Carleton’s Magazine: Everywhere.” After his death, the state legislature passed Public Act 51 of 1919, which required public school teachers to teach at least one of his poems and named his birthday, Oct. 21, Will Carleton Day.
Michigan has not named a poet laureate since Guest. Two Michigan poets, however, Robert Hayden and Philip Levine, have served as the nation’s poet laureate.
Over in East Lansing, the MSU Center for Poetry, which is closing in on its 10th year, has lined up a month long Spring Poetry Festival. Offerings include an edible book contest, readings of poetry in non- English languages and readings by nationally recognized poets like Tarfia Faizullah and Robin Coste Lewis. A full listing of events is available at poetry.rcah.msu.edu.
Stokes, an instructor at MSU’s English Language Center and an active figure in the local poetry scene, describes poetry as “essential to life.” She believes that a state poet laureate would provide a greater awareness in the public about the importance of poetry.
“It can be an important ally as we go about our life in the world.” Stokes said.
“Michigan, My Michigan”
Poetry reading 7 p.m. Thursday, March 31 FREE Lansing City Hall 124 W. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 282-0671