I learned that the people of Urbana truly appreciated the emphasis on poetry in their public lives. They felt it improved their town in a tangible way.
I learned that many poets live in this community who don’t always interact with each other, though they should, which is why a Poet Laureate should exist, to bring these groups together in some fashion.
I learned that poetry is both a private and a public practice. I suppose I knew this before, but it became clear during my appointment. I write in private, but it is so important to carry the poetry “into the kitchen,” as Nathalie Goldberg puts it in her book Writing Down the Bones.
I learned that the best-laid plans of a Poet Laureate are kicked aside like Tinker Toys by a tiny little virus. When many of my final events were cancelled due to COVID-19, I tried to think of another way to bring poetry into peoples’ lives. I decided to write anyone a poem who asked for one. I called them Happy Gift poems, my gift to the people I could no longer meet with. I believe that writing poetry for anyone who asked was the most important thing I did over the last six or so months.
As of today, I have written the 100 poems, a number I set for myself as a goal while I was the Poet Laureate. For me, it was a step outside my comfort zone, but soon it became exhilarating to sit and think of a person or an idea and write something moderately polished to share. All poems were freely given. The overwhelming number of people who received a poem, expressed how much it meant to them, and I could see first-hand how poetry fits into people’s everyday lives. This is going to sound a bit arrogant of me, but I really want to show in their own words the ways poetry entered people’s lives.
I have written a sonnet to a two-month-old boy. I have written about sheep for a lady who spins her own wool. I have written a poem about the history of one lady’s ancestors, which she read at a dinner party to her in-laws, reporting to me “how wonderful [it was] to be able to share my family with them through your poem.” I have written about bugs, dogs, cats, birds, and all sorts of creatures. I wrote about a yellow toy truck, and the mother who it was for wrote that “it made me tear up a bit,” because it reminded her of her own sons who played with a similar truck in a similar way. Other recipients report how the poem sparked meaningful family conversations. The reminiscences of backpacking trips or a child’s love for animals (“he enjoys me reading it to him”) bring to mind memories of a beloved aunt’s birthday, or an anniversary, or a wedding. In my own way, I used poetry to capture bits of life and reflect it back to people who seemed to love it.
I tell recipients of my poems that they may share the poem however they like, so long as they retain my name as author, though one person wrote, “I am blown away . . . So many things here are perfect . . . I’m not going to share it with anyone, because it’s like a locket I’d rather wear and keep the contents to myself. Personal, like the grief.”
Others have referred to their poem as “wonderfully foreboding, [with an] incantatory vibe,” or written that “[t]he poem is priceless. I want this on my headstone when I die”; “[t]he poem that you created for us will have a special place in our home”; [y]our poem is “enchanting and utterly charming . . . I love it so much!”; “I was moved, and a tear rolled down my cheek while I read it. It was just what I needed. I’m grateful.”
To me, these notes of gratitude prove how important poetry is to the fabric of the community. If every poet in town wrote and shared poems for a hundred people, it would greatly multiply the positive feelings I have shown here. And for the poet, consider that a poem shared is a poem published in a very personal way. On the one-to-one micro level, publication is even more powerful and intimate an experience.
Finally, I want to thank the City of Urbana, Mayor Diane Marlin, Rachel Storm and the Urbana Arts and Culture Council, and all the many people who supported the existence and activities of a Poet Laureate. I am very excited to see who the next Laureate will be.
by Will Reger
Obscurity settles in those moments
when no one is watching—it lets
the mind’s imaginings play out safely,
like fox kits in their underbrush.
I often hide in those shadows, watching
like a wight on the margins of a meadow,
where weeds and ditch water cover me.
To now be the one out in the field
with a hand on the plow, persuading
a horse to increased nimbleness,
how like a stage now is my page
and I the leading man reciting lines.
But what was it, friends, you came to see?
A voice for reason, learning, and justice?
A plowman preparing you a poetry harvest?
Or that songbird calling unseen among the reeds?
(Author’s note: a wight is a sort of nymph of the forests and fields. It is also a term used for retiring fellows, who are not boisterous, rarely noticed, and overlooked.)
Out in a Missouri beanfield, working alongside the matriarchs of his clan, a seven-year old Will Reger discovered that “itch” rhymed with “bitch,” and mentioned this realization in passing to the ladies, receiving a slap for his trouble. From that moment forward, he was in awe of poetry. Such power! Recently, he has become emeritus Poetry Laureate for Urbana. His first book, Petroglyphs (2019), is currently available for online ordering.