Minnesota’s first poet laureate

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Poet Robert Bly of Minneapolis was named Minnesota’s first poet laureate last week by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The 81-year-old poet is the author of more than 30 books of poetry. Bly is best known for his 1990 prose best seller, “Iron John: A Book About Men.”

Bly’s honorary position is new to the state. In 2005, Pawlenty vetoed legislation that would have created the state poet laureate title. The governor said Minnesota already had a state folklorist and that approving the poet laureate position could lead to “requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter.”

But in 2005 over half of the states in the country had a poet laureate. The United States has had a national poet laureate position since 1937. While the national poet laureate receives a small stipend, the newly created Minnesota equivalent will receive no tax dollars. The position simply honors the accomplishments of the poet and gives attention to the little-recognized art form of poetry in the state.

In 1934, poet Margaret Ball Dickson was named poet laureate of Minnesota by the Poet Laureate League of Washington, D.C. In 1973, Laurene Tibbetts-Larson was unofficially named Minnesota poet laureate by the local media and was also appointed as the Minnesota commissioner of poetry by the governor. Additionally, legislation in 1974 and again in 2004 to make the poet laureate position official failed to pass. It was not until 2007 that the honorary position was finally passed into law.

Pawlenty only approved the position when state legislators slipped the provision into a broader bill last session, making it difficult for the governor to veto it again.

Minnesota’s poet laureate, according to the governor’s office, “may promote the reading and writing of poetry, preside over poetry awards and contests and write poetry or select poets to compose works for significant state occasions.”

“The prince is a man of virtue,” as the 18th Century English historian Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “And the poet a man of genius.” The prince is now the politician in United States, but the poet remains the same – a man or woman of genius.