On April 24 at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Lexington poet Jeff Worley was installed as Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2019-2020. This ceremony was part of Kentucky Writers’ Day, held annually on or about April 24, the birthday of Kentucky native and the first-ever United States Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren. Kentucky Writers’ Day and the poet laureate program are administered by the Kentucky Arts Council.
Here are Jeff Worley’s remarks from the ceremony.
I want to say right off that this was a tough crowd to write a speech for. I thought we might have a room full of enthusiastic readers and writers — but otherwise quite a mix: college students, university professors, businessmen and women, elementary school classes, teachers, high schoolers, and a dancer or two. And we do. And my brother, Mike, is here, so we have at least one art historian with us today.
So I thought when in doubt, start with Mom.
My mother, Peg, is at least partly responsible for me being here today. Beyond getting me into this world, she gave me a gift when I was 9 years old that changed my life – a Christmas gift, a book, titled “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Though I had an impressive collection of comic books, this was my first encounter with real literature.
On a bitter cold night in 1956, I remember lying in bed with at least two blankets covering me, a hot cup of cocoa within arm’s reach, and this book now in my grasp.
Literature worked its magic on me that night: I was Tom Sawyer in that cave with Becky. I was Tom Sawyer in the graveyard with Huck. I happily discovered that artful language can take us on a magic carpet ride into other lives and other times.
I would guess that most of you here can pinpoint such an experience. So it starts with falling in love with reading, with books. All writers were readers first of course. As our reading life continued, somewhere along the line we thought it might be interesting to try our hand at writing the kind of thing we had been reading and admired. Saul Bellow says somewhere that “a writer is a reader moved to emulation.” And if you’re lucky enough to live in Kentucky, there are dozens of writers past and present, worthy of this writerly emulation.
It didn’t take long for poetry to hook me. My junior year at Wichita State I took a poetry-writing class from a wonderful teacher and poet, Michael Van Walleghen. Our “text” for the course was an anthology that included poems by Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, James Wright, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath and others. I learned what I could from these terrific writers, I wrote my first (really bad) poems, and I absolutely knew by the end of this class that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing poetry.
Many of us here, I think, can point to one teacher who essentially changed our life. Michael was that teacher for me. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and early on I told him he was primarily responsible for putting me on the path I’ve taken, the “poetry path.” His response: “I hope you can come to forgive me.”
The most essential thing to my development as a poet since I moved to Kentucky in 1986 has been the poetry group that Marcia Hurlow and I started soon after I arrived here. After a lot of creative and — frankly — ingenious thought we decided to call this group the Lexington-Frankfort Poetry Group. Marcia and I had both graduated from MFA programs and knew how useful the workshop model could be. And I’m happy to give a public shout out to the group’s other long-time members too—Richard Taylor, Leatha Kendrick, Mike Moran, Tom Webster, George Ella Lyon, Kim Miller and Susan Cobin. You’ve all made me a better poet, and our gatherings underscored the truth that poets can not only be solitary scribblers but can also profit immensely from a supportive community.
And way before this group was formed, I had a special “in-house” reader of my work — my wife, Linda, who has always been ready, willing and able to comment on my fledgling drafts. She brings to the task nearly 40 years of teaching German literature and writing and publishing scholarly articles. She is a talented, close reader and has been my front-line “crap detector” ever since I met her, supporting me in the “early days” when I was sending out my poems to magazines and getting almost all of them back. “They’ll catch on,” she said, the morning before the mailman brought me the happy news that both The Georgia Review and Poetry Northwest wanted my poems.
There’s someone else here I want to thank publicly — Susan Stempel. By the time I moved to Lexington I had been teaching literature and writing courses for 14 years at various universities. I was ready to try something new.
Someone at the University of Kentucky mentioned that the university had a research magazine, Odyssey, and maybe I could do some free-lance writing for the magazine. I met with Susan and assured her my qualifications were impeccable: I had never written a feature article in my life and knew next to nothing about science.
Susan rolled the dice and hired me anyway—she happened to be desperate for a writer — and it turned out we worked very well together: Odyssey won over a dozen local, regional, and national awards in the years to come. And my poetic sensibilities were helped considerably by my work with the magazine. I learned a lot about science, medical research and social sciences, all new fodder for my poetry.
How has reading and writing poetry made my life richer? Better?
There are poems that have, literally, changed my life, because they have altered the way I look at and listen to the world. “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar,” Shelley tells us, and one of the effective and interesting ways poets do this, as we know, is through metaphor.
As an example, here’s the last stanza of one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”:
Somewhere in the universe,
in the gallery of important things,
the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,
sits on its pedestal.
Dear, dark dapple of plush!
A message, reads the label,
from that mysterious conglomerate:
Oblivion and Co.
The hooked head stares
from its house of dark, feathery lace.
It could be a valentine.
An ideal ending for a poem “makes a sound like the click of a lid of a perfectly made box,” William Butler Yeats tells us, and this resolution can also contain an unexpected wallop—a happy surprise. “It could be a valentine.” Where did this come from? An owl’s face is a valentine. Now I see that. And ever since reading this poem, whenever I see an owl’s face, it is also a valentine. My valentine. And my life is a little richer for this.
For a poet who immerses herself in metaphor, the literal and the metaphorical are sometimes experienced almost simultaneously. I was driving one winter a few years ago with Richard Taylor — we were on our way to visit Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press — and somewhere between Frankfort and Monterey we went along a stretch of highway where ice had cascaded down some limestone cliffs. “Look at those amazing beards of ice,” Richard said. “I just thought the exact same thing!” I added. “Of course you did,” Richard said. Metaphor allows us to re-envision and better appreciate the world we move through.
In my limited time today, I’ll mention one other important thing that poetry can do: it can change our sensibilities and enlarge our sense of empathy. Here’s a poem by Wesley McNair:
From down the road, starting up
and stopping once more, the sound
of a puppy on a chain who has not yet
discovered he will spend his life there.
Foolish dog, to forget where he is
and wander until he feels the collar
close fast around his throat, then cry
all over again about the little space
in which he finds himself. Soon,
when there is no grass left in it
and he understands it is all he has,
he will snarl and bark whenever
he senses a threat to it.
Who would believe this small
sorrow could lead to such fury
no one would ever come near him?
Does this poem make you angry? In just a few lines McNair has shown us the effect of human cruelty to an animal, sad and tragic in part because all of us have probably witnessed such a scene or, in an even wider sense, experienced human cruelty to other animals. I believe the best poems, like this one, explore what it’s like to live on this earth in the Here and Now; poetry is a human art that springs straight from the blood and mire of a person’s existence.
I’m thrilled to be named Kentucky’s new poet laureate, and in the past couple of weeks I’ve talked with several of our former poets laureate to find out what I’m in for — I mean, what I have to look forward to. One of my questions I asked of our former laureates has been: Is there anything anybody asked you that you just didn’t have an answer for?
George Ella won the prize in this category. She told me last week that in a third-grade class in a Lexington elementary school, a girl shot her arm up into the air and said: “When you get this job, does it come with an outfit?” George Ella, I forgot to ask you how you answered this question . . . .
During my two-year tenure I plan to visit colleges and high schools throughout the state — English classes, poetry clubs, and special events perhaps. I look forward to reading poems — mine and others’ — in public libraries in Kentucky. Book clubs, civic groups, and writing workshops.
I look forward to talking about Kentucky’s literary history, and I’m eager to do some traveling around the state. I have a peppy Subaru Impreza that’s a joy to drive, I have Sirius radio and I’ve locked one of my stations onto the Beatles channel. You might even hear me on the outskirts of your town singing along with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. They count on me by now to help them out.
I also plan to play a supporting role on a project that just came to my attention two weeks ago. Ewa Zadrzynska, a writer and filmmaker, has created a quality series called Poetry Unites America. Each film focuses on a particular state. An essay-writing contest is held and the winners are featured in the unscripted film. The subject of the essay is “the significance of a particular poem in my life.”
Ewa has already completed two films — Poetry Unites New York and Poetry Unites Kansas — which are beautifully done and can be found on the web. She’s in the planning stages now for the third film in the series — Poetry Unites Kentucky. She chose our state, she told me, because, for one thing, it’s widely known that Kentucky is a “writerly state.” Her words. I chuckled to myself that this phrase, used by Jim Wayne Miller 30 years or so ago, has made the rounds and come back home. There are examples aplenty that Kentucky is a writerly state; one example is all of us gathered here to celebrate another Kentucky Writers Day, and I know there are other celebrations around the state today.
Ewa has asked me to be one of the judges of the essay contest, but first I’ll be asked to “spread the news about the contest throughout Kentucky,” which I’m happy to do with the help of arts organizations and news outlets in the state.
I readily agreed to be one of the judges, especially after she mentioned she expects that two of the former judges — Robert Pinsky and Edward Hirsch — plan to be involved in this film. As many of you know, Pinsky is a former poet laureate of the United States; Hirsch is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. I’ll be honored to be a part of this.
Current plans are for the contest to be launched this September and filming to take place next February, March and April. This is obviously a wonderful opportunity for poetry and the arts in Kentucky.
Thank you for your attention and thank you for being here. Finally, I also want to thank the Kentucky Arts Council for organizing this event and — on a personal level — for three Al Smith fellowships during the time I was trying to find my footing as a Kentucky poet. And to the previous Kentucky poets laureate, those here today and those absent. I have all of your books on my shelves and return to them often.
I’d like to end with a poem of mine, which I wrote on the back porch of our Cave Run Lake cabin a week after my retirement from UK.
“Another 8-to-5 on the Porch of Our Cave Run Lake Cabin”
All afternoon I happily crawl
through a book of Jim Harrison’s poems
and watch a tawny, fat orb weaver
fashion a net between shagbark hickory
and white ash. Then it’s my job
to note nuthatches hopping down
the trunk of a sugar hackberry
to pillage the birdfeeder. After a coffee
break, I monitor the drinking binge
(the fake petals of our feeder irresistible)
of the ruby-throated hummingbird,
sit quiet as sandstone as two wild turkeys
flutter and primp in a spotlight of sun.
Next on my schedule is a 4:30 (I’m
right on time) with Johnny Walker, the one
drink I allow myself these days, which
helps me adjudicate the screeking
complaints of two plump jays bluffing
each other over a piece of rye toast.
Then a goldfinch, sleek shard of sun,
lands on the crossbeam four feet away
and looks me in the eyes for 25 seconds.
I sit back and let go a long breath.
This is the work I was born for.