ESSAYS AND WRITINGS ON THE WORDS AND MUSIC OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS

Thursday, January 3, 2013

On Submitting a White House Petition to Nominate John Darnielle to be U.S. Poet Laureate (and why you should sign it, too)


Hello, My name is Michael H. and I am a Mountain Goats fan.

I recently submitted a Petition, through the White House petition process, to nominate John Darnielle as U.S. Poet Laureate.  The Petition has been met with the extremely enthusiastic support of many, and the somewhat flippant dismissal of others.  From the New York Times to the International Business Times, and all throughout the Twitter-sphere, discussion has ensued.  Over 3,500 people have signed the Petition in just over a week, as of this writing.  It is lot of attention for Poet Laureate, a government position that, before the Petition, many people did not know existed.  Surely, it is not nearly as sexy as the controversial calls to deport Piers Morgan for his use of constitutionally protected speech, but still warrants consideration.

Who is John Darnielle? John Darnielle is the leader, and often sole member, of the band the Mountain Goats.  Mr. Darnielle is often regarded as one of the top writers of the modern day.  The New York Times has referred to him as “a literary thinker.”  He has been called the “best non hip-hop lyricist today.”  The New Yorker has stated that Mr. Darnielle, “through his poetry, grants [his characters] the dignity that eludes them in their lives.”  Further, the New Yorker described Darnielle’s writing as “insistent and stuffed with words like late-night pay-phone calls from a lover determined to complete a thought before the quarter runs out.” He has been described as a “way more emo Robbe-Grillet” and, as one writer noted, in a style seemingly inspired by Robbe-Grillet, Mr, Darnielle often presents objects in his work without subject, urging the audience to sense the realness of the moment without assistance from the narrator.  His style is a big one. So are his ideas. 

Mr. Darnielle has a career spanning over twenty years in which he has wrestled with various facets of the human experience, of domestic violence, of self-harm, of lost loves and broken marriages, of desperation of the hopeless and exhilaration of the heretical. Of death and, most starkly, of life.  His writings include references to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Kurt Cobain; and quotes from the Notorious B.I.G. and old Gaelic drinking tunes.  He once penned a cycle of lyrics inspired by Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent Aztec god. His wide range of literary knowledge has been the starting ground for a new generation of blooming writers and readers.

Reception to the Petition - Responses to the Petition to nominate Mr. Darnielle as U.S. Poet Laureate have been largely positive, with over 3,500 signatures in just over a week as of this writing. The Petition has been supported by what can only be considered the top tiers of American intellectualism.  Signatories and supporters include three-time O. Henry Award winning author, Tobias Wolff; former Writer Laureate of Alaska, John Straley; and New York Times bestselling author and vlogbrother John Green. More supporters are signing the Petition every day.  Respected media outlets including the New York Times, Pitchfork Magazine, Paste, Spinner, BuzzFeed, Brooklyn Vegan have published articles about the Petition drive. 

Supporters of the Petition have taken to Twitter, praising the work of Mr. Darnielle and opining on the help and solace they have received through the words of Mr. Darnielle, with such praise as “please prove that the USA can do something right. Sign this Petition to name [John Darnielle] U.S. Poet Laureate,” “John Darnielle is my favorite human,” a declaration that signing the Petition "is the most important thing you will do today," and simply, “John Darnielle you da man.”

As is to be expected, some responses to the Petition are negative.  The International Business Times pointed to the Petition as an example of the uselessness of the petition process, claiming that it added an “air of frivolity” to the process.  Others in the Twitter-sphere claimed that Mr. Darnielle was a songwriter and not a poet, some suggesting reading lists for signers of the Petition so as to share the definition of what a poem is.  Still others have claimed that, if songwriting and lyrics are poems, they have others in mind as a “better” poet or candidate for U.S. Poet Laureate.

Poetry and the Poet Laureate -  On a basic level, dictionaries define a poem as “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” and "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm."  It is difficult to argue that the work of John Darnielle fails these tests. 

            King Saul fell on his sword when it all went wrong,
            Joseph's brothers sold him down the river for a song,
And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove.
Some things you do for money and some you do for love.

More substantively, the greatest of poets grapple with finding a satisfying definition. William Wordsworth stated that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  Some poems follow strict formats, like the sonnets of Shakespeare.  Some cast format aside.  Robert Frost, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, opined that poetry is “when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.” As Ezra Pound stated, “to break the pentameter, that was the  heave.”  We see examples of this in some of Mr. Darnielle’s strongest work.
Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania
Trucks loaded down with weapons
Crossing over every night
Moon yellow and bright
 
There is a shortage in the blood supply
But there is no shortage of blood
The way I feel about you baby, I can't explain it
You got the best of my love
 
Bob Dylan went even further. “Everybody has their own idea of what's a poet. Robert Frost . .  T.S.Eliot . . . - they're all poets. I like to think of myself as the one who carries the light bulb.”  Critically to the consideration at hand, Adrian Mitchell said once that “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”  Mr. Darnielle does not ignore people.
I'm in my room with the headphones on
deep in the dream chamber.
And then I'm awake and I'm guarding my face,
hoping you don't break my stereo.
Because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without
and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.
 
Held under these smothering waves 
by your strong and thick veined hand.
But one of these days I'm going to wriggle up on dry land.
 
John Darnielle’s poetry is about people, and carries the light bulb for them in order to, as the New Yorker recognized, grant them “the dignity that eludes them in their lives.” In a 2011 article published in the prestigious academic journal, Biblical Interpretations, A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, A.K.M. Adam observed  that, in his writings, Mr. Darnielle "displays a salutary resistance to oversimplifying dichotomies."  By any reasonable definition, John Darnielle is a poet of remarkable substance. 

The Poet Laureate position has been famously held by Robert Frost, Willam Carlos Williams and Gwendolyn Brooks, all writers who were respected and well-regarded, in their day, able to use their relative fame and their good names to spread word through channels that traditional poets simply donot readily have today. The position is held for a one year term. 
The current Poet Laureate is Natasha Trethewey who, like Mr. Darnielle, intermingles free verse with more traditional formats of verse, to guide the audience “into the human tragedy,” in the words of James Billington, the current Librarian of Congress.  Much of the same can be said of the writings of Mr. Darnielle.  

              When we hid out behind the risers at the high school,
              working bitter calculations with a slide rule.
              The grim particulars of poisoning the swimming pool, 
              well you looked me in the eye. Ready to die. 

Notably, both Ms. Trethewey and Mr. Darnielle are in the middle of their careers, and have the energy and enthusiasm that boosts the position of Poet Laureate. Indeed, when used to its full effect, the position of Poet Laureate has been used to reach the American people quite strikingly.  For example, as U..S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove blended words with jazz and spoken words events to make the art form more accessible.  Joseph Brosby used the position to bring poetry into airports and other public space, again maximizing accessibility to the poem.  John Darnielle’s accessibility and enthusiasm to evangelize the word as art aptly demonstrates that Mr. Darnielle would serve as an excellent successor to Ms. Trethewey.   Utilized to its maximum effect and led by an excited poet such as Mr. Darnielle, the position of U.S. Poet Laureate can bring positive change, substantive education, and joy and solace to the reader, the everyday American, of all ages and backgrounds.

Mr. Darnielle is a tireless writer and prolific advocate of the arts.  His demeanor and his work reflect not only deep knowledge of the history and usage of the poem in literature, but an enthusiasm is contagious and intense.    There is no doubt that Mr. Darnielle’s frenzied love for word as art would maximize the value of this position.

The White House Petition Process- Why should the U.S. White House Petition process have anything to do with the position of U.S. Poet Laureate? It is clear one does not typically nominate an individual to the noble position of U.S. Poet Laureate through a Petition to the White House, and that many people consider the whole White House Petition process silly.

It may well be that the White House petition process is silly. A simple review of the headlines of many petitions on the website seem to confirm that the petition process is, to be kind, prone to uselessness. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition to have Piers Morgan deported for exercising constitutionally protected speech.  Thousands more have signed petitions to create gun free zones around politicians, as well as calls for the president to resign, replete with misspellings, words in full capital letters and all the trolling one could ask for. 

In a very real sense, therefore, the White House Petition Process is in danger of becoming nothing more than the internet comments section of the Executive Branch.  Another place in the internet where those with political and personal axes to grind can spew rhetoric, with irrationality bound firmly and proudly in a clenched fist. The internet teaches us that such places never last.  In legitimate circles, such places always disappear or become so thoroughly policed as to become pointless and moot.  Don’t let it happen to this process. The White House petition process currently offers an avenue between the people of the country and the Executive Branch.   It is relatively new, being in place for less than two years.  It is still developing and, like many places in the internet, is at the cross-roads of reasoned dialogue and obsolete silliness.  The Petition to Nominate John Darnielle as the Poet Laureate supports the former as much as the “Deport Piers Morgan” petition supports the latter.

Sign the Damn Petition - Support a position that is positive and realistic.  It is the ultimate response to the negative petitions regarding Piers Morgan, secession and baseless calls for Presidential impeachment.  Sign a Petition that was submitted and circulated with a determination to be positive and forward-thinking, catering to the revitalization of literature and poetry as the intellectual back-bone of our culture and society.  Rip poetry out of the dark corners of the tragically ignored.  Do not permit the White House’s petition process to go unused for positive efforts, left instead to the angry ranting of the political fringes.

Help shape the White House’s Petition Process in a positive way. Help encourage and disseminate the art of the word, the American poem. 22,000 more signatures are needed by January 25.  Sign the Petition to nominate John Darnielle to be the next U.S. Poet Laureate. Do it!

Sign the Petition Here.

By: Michael H.  Mr. H. is based in San Francisco and is a contributing editor to this blog. 

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