The Secretary of Poetry

by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & oet laureates don't bother with television. At least Washington State Poet Laureate Sam Green doesn't own one. His house doesn't even have much electricity, beyond what a few meager solar panels can provide. Instead his home, handmade on a small San Juan island, features books -- more than 10,000 of them, the bulk related to poetry.

It's not surprising, then, that Green peppers his ruminations on poetry with the quotes, aphorisms, and quips of poets past. To show how poetry doesn't have to be a matter of competition between poets or mediums, Green quotes Ezra Pound: "It's imperative in the world that we have great art. It is of no consequence who makes it."

And in order to highlight the unique power and role of poetry, Green cites poet Paul Carroll: "A poem is a tongue for the mute hearts of people."

As state poet laureate, Green's job is to try to spread that sort of excitement about poetry, to give Washington residents the opportunity to be infected with his own contagious passion for verse. Speaking about "Poetry in the Every Day," he'll do just that next Thursday afternoon at EWU.

For some people, admittedly, poetry can be an acquired taste. The key to helping people care about poetry, Green says, is exposure -- offering a buffet of bites and nibbles to whet their appetite for more.

"Before making a decision to exclude the reading of poetry from their lives, people ought to know what they're excluding," Green says.

Green says every poet has an experience when, after a reading, audience members will admit that while they were only dragged to the reading by a spouse, friend or relative, they actually kinda liked it. Now where, they ask, can they find more?

One way to reach an audience, Green says, is to be honest when answering questions, as opposed to offering canned responses that aren't inclusive. During many of his readings, he'll read poems from other writers -- poems he personally found moving. "I take pleasure in a lot of other poets," Green says. "I'm happy when I read a really great poem I couldn't have written."

That honesty also means Green doesn't shy away from poetry's ambiguity. For Green, poetry is something that begs for exploration -- and personal reaction -- but eludes easy definition. That's why he thinks it merely over-simplifies matters to deliver a thumbs-up/thumbs-down hierarchy of "good poetry" or "bad poetry."

Similarly, Green scoffs at the notion that there's a "correct" interpretation of a poem. "There is not a 'right answer' or a 'wrong answer,' he says. "Poems are things to be encountered. They're not jigsaw puzzles with a single solution."

A sculpture by Northwest artist Philip McCracken, "Mole Greeting the Sun," encapsulates what Green regards as the ideal way to approach poetry. In both McCracken's sculpture and Green's poem about it, a tiny mole stands on a small mound, his arms outstretched, his face gazing toward the sky.

As Green says, poetry is "about trying to stay open to what you might not understand -- being willing to look beyond the expected."

Notes on "Mole Greeting the Sun"

Bronze by Philip McCracken

He has brought everything

into the open, stood it on its hind

legs, tail hanging limp as wet string,

hind claws curved over a base

like the blunt top

of a carrot. Its forepaws are held out

palms open, the way a leaf offers

itself. This is not the moment

of epiphany, but the sole moment

when epiphany is possible, the slope

of its long snout lifted, thrust

forward beyond the tight slits

of its eyes toward something bright

as the wings of a hawk in descent. Shouldn't

we want to be like that, lifting ourselves

out of the dim tunnel of safety,

facing something past

the familiar touch by

which we learned ourselves, declaring

Here am I Here am I

Samuel Green, from The Grace of Necessity, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2008.

The Poet Laureate of Washington state, Sam Green, will speak on "Poetry in the Every Day" on Thursday, June 19, at 4:30 pm in the lobby of EWU's JFK Library in Cheney. Event sponsored by EWU's Friends of the Library. Free. Visit or call 359-2306.

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