Follow Harriet on Twitter
I was recently asked to write a poem for the inauguration of my university’s president, and I read it at the ceremony last weekend. This gratifying experience got me thinking about the place of occasional poetry in our culture.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Ever since Wordsworth accepted the British poet laureate appointment only on condition that he wouldn’t have to write occasional poems, even poets laureate (with the exception of Andrew Motion) are generally not interested in writing occasional poetry. Has a U.S. poet laureate ever written an occasional poem? Conceivably not, since the post is a 20th century invention in this country.
Unlike Motion, who says that being poet laureate has given him writer’s block (presumably because of the occasional poetry he’s felt obligated to write), I have long found writing occasional poetry to be quite inspiring. For some time, I have felt drawn to write poems for such occasions as a wedding, anniversary, memorial service, baby-naming ceremony, valentine’s day, solstices and equinoxes, and so on, and have been happy to write public poetry for the dedication of a library, the wall of a café, the window of the Grolier bookstore, and most recently, said inauguration of a university president. And, contrary to the stereotype of occasional poems that Motion has validated, I think of most of these poems as genuine poems and publish them alongside the others.
Occasional poetry provides me with the opportunity to address a wider audience. I am gratified when someone, perhaps especially someone who doesn’t often read poetry, is moved by what I’ve written. I enjoy the aesthetic challenge of using the traditional tools of the public poem—meter, rhyme, and accessible language—while maintaining a contemporary consciousness and literary standards. I am often genuinely inspired by the very occasionalness of occasions—they are something I want to write about. And, not least, particularly since becoming a parent, I’ve found that promising poems to others provides an invincible motivation to finish a poem by a certain date.
I was pleased to see a Goethe quote recently to the effect that occasional poetry is “the first and most genuine of all poetic genres.” That seems right to me. And then there is the challenge of making an occasional poem “real”; as in the story of the Velveteen rabbit, what makes it real seems to be some kind of roughness, the strength involved in wrestling the conventional treatment of the theme down and allowing the genuine to shine through. I’ll be thinking about this a lot over the next few weeks, as I wrestle with the ode to my class I’ll be reading at my upcoming undergraduate reunion.