Poetic injustice

Jul. 19, 2014 @ 03:50 PM

Controversy over decisions by governors and other elected leaders are a natural part of our political process. They can be healthy –the push and pull of competing viewpoints and ideologies seeking solutions to important problems.

But one that erupted in Raleigh last week so didn’t have to happen.

Gov. Pat McCrory nine days ago named Valerie Macon to be the state’s eighth poet laureate. It was the sort of routine announcement that, especially on a sleepy mid-summer Friday, was likely to attract little attention outside the friends and family of the appointee.

But the appointment vaulted the post, usually little noticed outside of literary and circles, to national attention. And not, as they say, in a good way.

Many in that literary community – including four previous poet laureates – were aghast at the selection. Macon has self-published two books of poetry that had attracted scant, if any, acclaim. 

The thinness of her resume – and the revelation subsequently that even as thin as it was, it was exaggerated on her website – ignited a flurry of protest. The kerfuffle showed up on National Public Radio and other national news programs. 

Thursday, Macon resigned. She remains, she said, “passionate about the mission of poetry to touch all people regardless of age, education or social status,” but did not want the “negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention” from the position.

McCrory, who had earlier in the week taken a dig at “the standard or even elite groups” who were critical of his selection, took another shot in reluctantly accepting the resignation. He was, he said, “disappointed by the way some in the poetry community have expressed such hostility and condescension toward an individual who has great passion for poetry and our state.”

There was, to be sure, more than a hint of condescension in some criticism. Macon is by all accounts a good and caring person whose work on behalf of the homeless, for example, is noble.

But as Anthony Hatcher noted in a guest column on this page Friday, the dictionary definition of laureate is “a person who is honored with an award for outstanding creative or intellectual achievement.”

Macon’s body of work did not meet that standard. Surely, there are ways to celebrate her good works and poetic aspirations, but to elevate her well beyond her accomplishments was not it.

The governor has said he was only slightly involved in the selection process, which actually we hope is true. Far more critical issues demand his attention.

But it appears no one was very deeply engaged. Perhaps someone would have pointed out that if the administration didn’t care for the past practice of having the N. C. Arts Council vet and recommend candidates for poet laureate, they might replace it with a less casual process.

In the end, Macon was unnecessarily humiliated, the state became a national punch line again, and the governor was left in an embarrassing position.

It didn’t have to happen.