Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The North Carolina Poet Laureate Question (2)

Aaron Belz


By Aaron Belz

August 11, 2014

This article is the second in a two-part series.

My previous column ended with the questions, “So how should we select a poet laureate? On what terms ought we accord honor to not only poets but other sorts of artists?” With truisms like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “I may not know art, but I know what I like,” we’re prone to view art the way many Americans also view religion: It’s a personal choice. If you find something you like, good for you, and no one should try to convince you otherwise.

But in art, as in religion, there is also truth—at least, for the sake of argument, truer and less true. Just as evidence supports a claim that Judaism operates on principles truer and more lasting than those of Heaven’s Gate, evidence points to Picasso’s art being more beautiful, meaningful, and better than mine. Easy to make those obvious calls, but what about the closer ones, comparing, for instance, Picasso and Braque? While between those two heavy hitters it might not be possible to determine a “better” or “truer,” it is certainly possible to make several volumes worth of comparative observations and call them “criticism,” volumes that other artists’ work wouldn’t merit. So there are echelons of importance, or cultural meaningfulness, in art, and the question is: how do we judge such importance or meaningfulness in a field as seemingly obscure as poetry?

Obscurity doesn’t equate to subjectivism, though. My motorcycle maxes out at 67 horsepower (8,000 RPM); recently I read that space shuttle rockets develop 37 million horsepower, and I believe those numbers even though I don’t know what a “horsepower” is or how it’s measured without looking it up. Even then, I know I’m trusting physicists and engineers who have studied the field and come up with such standards of measurement. And I do well to trust them, just as I trust the curators of the Louvre, who would be as foolish to display my work as NASA engineers would be to install a motorcycle engine in a rocket. In fact, those curators wouldn’t do that, because they have standards of their own, and the standards, though specialized, aren’t subjective.

All of New York City’s more than 700 art galleries accept and reject applicants, and those decisions are always made at least partly based on objective factors. Curators use their training and experience to assess the potential of the proposals they’re considering, and they also look at factors such as artists’ skill and vitae, as well as perceived public taste, what other galleries and museums are doing, and, if the art is for sale, how much money a given artist’s work has commanded on the market. Artists who are included more than others develop better reputations and sell their work for more money.

If it seems that I’m explaining basic principles to schoolchildren, blame Governor Pat McCrory (R-NC) who recently selected a state poet laureate with no publications and no discernable readership! He then told the press that objections to the appointment were elitist, territorial and possibly lacking creativity: “We’ve got to open up opportunities for people that aren’t always a part of the standard or even elite groups that have been in place for a long time. And it’s good to welcome new voices and new ideas.”

To echo what my teachers said when I was young, “This is not a democracy!” Well, in fact, it is, but what is good in literature, art, and music is not merely up for grabs, nor is it primarily for humanitarian outreach. The role of a prominent writer or artist is not the same as a community center director, though the functions may overlap. The qualifications of a poet laureate do not have to be assessed in secret the way fraternities vet new members. Beyond reliance on expert opinion (concentrated at universities and publishing venues), there are objective factors any layperson can consider—such as publications, prominence of publisher, popularity, public appearances, and length of career.

Another high school maxim is, “This is not a popularity contest.” In fact, in the arts, success actually is a popularity contest. The odd Emily Dickinson example notwithstanding, no author who fails to publish and find a wide readership attains to much. And if we don’t like what’s popular, at least it’s a dependable barometer of the cultural mindset outside of ourselves. The art and literature we celebrate does show us who we are.

- Aaron Belz has published three volumes of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) and Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). He is the poet laureate of Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”