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What is it about celebrity poets that rile “serious” writers of poetry? With each new collection of poems by an actor or music recording star, envy mounts as does the high levels of indifference by poets and critics, alike. Such books of poetry are roundly dismissed and ignored by the literati, yet inevitably become bestsellers owing to the legions of adoring fans that seem to have an interminable appetite for mediocre verse. Rest assured, such books do not attract prize committees and are rarely reviewed outside of Publishers Weekly or Booklist. One would think, also, given the stratospheric mega-sales, these books would appear on the poetryfoundations.org bestseller lists. Alas, there too, ignored.
Although celebrity poets seem to be double-dipping in their attempts to elevate themselves from pop-icons to literary luminaries, and although their poetry at times seems vapid and artless (read Leonard Nimoy’s aka Dr. Spock’s love poem below), and although we know their books are part of a package deal contract between their lawyers, media agents, and publishers, I appreciate the visibility and import they bring to audiences of readers who might not normally buy volumes of poetry. They just might even be fighting back the trend of dwindling readerships, helping in the cause of increasing literacy among the youth.
Do their poems advance the art of poetry? Probably not, but they also do not poison the meal. Although it might be unfair to grant them admission into the country club dining room, they have as much a right to creatively express themselves as the next guy and more to share their musings between the hardcovers on love, life, and lost dogs. (Check out Jimmy Stewart reading a poem about his dog Beau on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981.)
Some celebrities I knew first as poets, long before the bright lights, big screens. At the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, I organized an event titled “Word Up!: 3 Cities, 15 Poets, 1 Goal” which featured poets from NYC, DC, and Philly, including Ursula Rucker, Sabela Grimes, Ryva, Carl Hancock Rux, Rich Medina, Ayana Traylor, Danielle Legros-George, Bethany White, Willie Perdomo, Tish Benson, Joel Diaz Porter, Brian Gilmore, Kenneth Carroll, and a young performance poet Jill Scott. Yes, before her first recording “Who Is Jill Scott?” Jill was a Philly poet. In fact, Jill’s song “Exclusively,” I first heard as a poem before its appearance on her debut album. Venues like the Lyricist Lounge and The Time Café’s Rap Meets Poetry often blended genres and served as springboards for unsigned hip-hop artists, emcees, and poets such as Mos Def, Mums da Schemer, Jessica Care Moore, and others to display their skills in an open-mic setting.
What is a good trend in my estimation is when mega-stars put their weight behind poetry, as in the Academy of American Poets’ annual benefit that has notable cultural figures as Dan Rather, Minnie Driver, and Liam Neeson reading poems in celebration of contemporary poetry; or when esteemed aficionados of poetry such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or John Lithgow edit anthologies of their favorite poems.
What would really be hip, is if celebrity poets donated their time and talents to more literary organizations and went on tour reading their poems as a group.
I naturally give such artists their due respect and am ambivalent about guarding the gates of taste and good judgment. In that spirit, I encourage you to go out and buy these books (as if they need my advocacy) of recent and not-so-recent pop bards to fill up your bookshelf:
Ten Last Night by Viggo Mortensen
Foolish/Unfoolish: Reflections on Love by Ashanti
Who Will Cry for the Little Boy? by Antwone Fisher
Tears for Water: A Songbook of Poems and Lyrics by Alicia Keys
The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours: The Poetry of Jilt Scott by Jill Scott
Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems by Jimmy Carter
Thoughts by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins of TLC
A Lifetime of Love: Poems on the Passages of Life by Leonard Nimoy
A Night Without Armour by Jewel
The Lords and the New Creatures by Jim Morrison
The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur
Touch Me by Suzanne Sommers
Yesterday I Saw the Sun: Poems by Ally Sheedy
Blinking with Fists: Poems by Billy Corgan
The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book
for the Whole Family by John Lithgow
The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Meanwhile, here are two poems by Jimmy Carter and Leonard Nimoy.
Why We Get Cheaper Tires from Liberia
The miles of rubber trees bend from the sea.
Each of the million acres cost a dime
nearly two Liberian lives ago.
has poured like sap from trees, almost free,
from men coerced to work by poverty
and leaders who had sold the people’s fields.
The plantation kiln’s pink bricks
made the homes of overseeing whites
a corporation’s pride
Walls of the same polite bricks divide
the worker’s tiny stalls
like cells in honeycombs;
no windows breach the walls,
no pipes or wires bring drink or light
to natives who can never claim this place as theirs
by digging in the ground.
No churches can be built,
no privy holes or even graves
dug in the rolling hills
for those milking Firestone’s trees, who die
from mamba and mosquito bites.
I asked the owners why.
The cost of land, they said, was high.
Jimmy Carter, Always a Reckoning, 1995
I love you
not for what
I want you to be
But for what you are
I loved you then
For what you were
I love you now
for what you have become
I miss you
And not only you
I miss what I am
When you are here…
You bring out the best in me