Poet Laureate, what's that?
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Poet Laureate, what's that?

By Lowell Jaeger

Two years as Montana Poet Laureate and I’ve learned this: the Treasure State is rich with surprising landscapes and richer still with welcoming towns and lively minds. Each byway and back road leads to aesthetic pleasures of its own – antelope nesting in prairie grass while horses graze nearby, whitewater singing and cascading beneath thorny devil’s club, breath-taking vistas of massive granite slabs aspiring skyward. 

So many Main Streets – some bustling with ranchers loading pickup beds with fence poles and spools of barbed wire, some crowded with souvenir shops and tourists sipping lattes and licking gelatos, some drowsy and half dreaming with dusty curbsides and empty storefronts and outlaw tumbleweed forever blowing in and out of town – but each of them with a poster in the hardware store or the post office or the pub inviting townsfolk to meet the Montana Poet Laureate for an evening of cookies and laughter and thoughtful conversation.

My mind has been educated, my heart enriched, by shaking hands and listening to strangers’ stories and sharing tales of my own. People asked, “Poet Laureate, what’s that?” I’m an ambassador for the arts, I told them. 

We need food and shelter and occupation, I’d explain; these we need to survive. But we also need to nourish our hearts and minds with the arts; these we need to truly thrive. Sure, that answer sounds high-falutin’. Reader, don’t underestimate whatever it is within each of us – across race, gender, age, rank, and economic status – that which looks up into the night sky and longs to understand the stars. 

Ask anyone who is willing to sit with you awhile, “What does it mean to be human?” Even grade-schoolers want to know. Now offer them a poem. Offer them a painting. Offer them music, dance, and a chance to shape clay with their hands. Whatever it is in each of us that longs for more than digging roots and keeping the cave lit with fire … well, that’s where art comes from. 

One inquisitive face or another asked me, “What is poetry?” In my younger days I’d parry the question by telling the story of Louis Armstrong. “What is jazz?” someone asked him. He famously responded, “If you need to ask that question you’ll never know the answer.” 

For years I considered this a wise and witty retort, but now as Poet Laureate, I looked into sincere faces asking an honorable question, and the Armstrong anecdote no longer served. I wanted to let people in, not lock people out. I was stung, a bit tongue-tied, to realize I had no worthy reply. In this way my audience educated me, prompted me to reflect and grow. 

Poetry, I learned to say (with a nod to Sir Ken Robinson) … is an anti-anesthetic. Of course we need anesthetics now and again for surgeries and other emergencies to numb the senses and dull the mind. Poetry (and all the arts!) strives to do the opposite: poetry wants to enliven the senses and awaken the mind. This became my main message.

I named my Poet Laureate project “Poetry 101” and vowed to bring poetry to 101 venues across Montana in two years. I’ve completed 148. I’ve served many eager audiences. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Service. I’ve been honored to serve.

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