Walt Whitman, the most American of poets, aimed at summing up an entire nation in his Leaves of Grass. Whitman very nearly did. Mayor Villaraigosa wants to find a writer -- as the city's first poet laureate -- to sum up Los Angeles. That's a harder job.
According to the job description (here), "The City of Los Angeles Poet Laureate will serve as the official ambassador of Los Angeles' vibrant poetry and literary culture. The Poet Laureate will use the position as a platform to promote the City's greatest writers and the transformative qualities of poetry and the written word throughout all parts of the community."
The city's job description mirrors that of the national poet laureate: public readings, promotion of literature in the city's public schools, and celebration of the city's literary past and present. The term will be two years. Special occasion writing while on the job is expected. There's an annual honorarium of $10,000.
(Ominously, the official activities of the poet laureate will be, as the job flyer frankly puts it, "reviewed and approved" by the Department of Cultural Affairs. I'm not sure if City Hall's restraining hand will have much effect. Los Angeles has a community of notably rambunctious poets, not tame ones, and they've been delivering without minders Whitman's "barbaric YAWP" over the roofs of L.A. for decades.)
It might seem silly to stuff the contending voices of the city into one poet's mouth. We speak in more than a hundred languages, dialects, local creoles, and street argots. How do you say "L.A. noir" in Hmong or Armenian, in Farsi or Hebrew? There are so many poetry traditions at work here, most of them new arrivals outside the "official" literary cannon, and so many pasts making claims on our future.
Whitman, in celebrating himself as the compounded American poet, sidestepped the problem of persistent hybridity in a city of minorities. He heard all the separate voices in their varied accents combined in one Columbian chorus. The city's poet laureate cannot.
Whitman's 19th century hope isn't ours, but the new poet laureate will serve the civic good nonetheless.
It's the task of poets to find language to articulate what cannot be described except in poetry. And if there ever was -- or is -- a place lacking description by means other than in a poem, it's Los Angeles. It will be good to have a poet turn to that work (and to pay her or him to do it). It will do us good to enlarge our moral imaginations with the help of a poet's words.
Our laureate will be picked by the end of October by the (unpoetic sounding) Poet Laureate Task Force. Nominations to the task force are due by October 5.
I hope the task force directs that Mayor Villaraigosa crown their selection on the City Hall steps with a wreath of Apollo's laurels for old time's sake, because some things are too ordinary not to be thought sacred. However, the poet should be crowned with our native laurels, Umbellularia californica.
As the green and fragrant wreath is laid on the poet's brow, the mayor might whisper, so only the poet can hear, that the laurels of our canyons are beautiful but poisonous: a reminder of the risks of even a little glory.