Poetry scares people.
Poets Laureate? That sounds like they should be wearing circles of laurel leaves on their heads and reciting from hilltops. Super scary.
The new Maryland Poet Laureate is the opposite of that image, though I would highly condone granting her a laurel leaf crown. Grace Cavalieri is more poetry’s grandma, albeit one who wears a leather motorcycle jacket and writes collections of poetry about Anna Nicole Smith.
“She is not a gatekeeper, but one who opens the gate and says, ‘Come in, you are welcome here,’ ” said poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, head of the Poet Laureate Selection Committee, who introduced Cavalieri on the last day of February at her induction party in Annapolis. (And will offer a workshop and read with Beth Ann Fennelly at this year’s Blackbird Poetry Festival.)
After Davis and other dignitaries finished praising her, Cavalieri beamed at the audience, including her four daughters sitting in the front row. She explained that at their family home, “Poetry has always sat at the table.”
For more than forty years, Cavalieri has hosted “The Poet and the Poem,” an interview show on public radio, now carried by the Library of Congress. She’s written more than 20 books and chapbooks of poetry, had 26 plays produced on the American stage, and won honors like the Pen-Fiction Award, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and the inaugural Columbia Merit Award from Folger Shakespeare Library.
Those awards sound off-putting, but Grace’s speech to the gathered crowd of past Maryland Poets Laureate, friends, former students at Columbia’s 1960s experimental Antioch College, fellow poets, and Italian cousins wasn’t.
“Here’s what poetry does. It slows us down,” Cavalieri said. “Poetry is a shelter, a haven, it’s dreaming on a page. Poetry keeps us from being lonely. It’s a bridge. It makes us more human.”
For young people, whom Cavalieri hopes most of all to reach with her message, poetry finds chinks in their armor, the defenses they’ve built up to navigate the world.
“Through writing, they find out who they are. Poetry is self-discovery. You find out where you’ve been and where you’re going,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was until I was 80, now I’m enjoying it very much.”
And after the laughter and applause died down, Cavalieri read one of her signature poems, about her grandparents’ Italian restaurant in Trenton, NJ. The poem’s topic? Something everyone loves – besides Grace – pizza.
Cavalieri came to HoCoPoLitSo’s very first event, on Nov. 19, 1974, with poets Carolyn Kizer and Lucille Clifton. And she started reading her work and teaching workshops with us in 1980, and was our poet-in-residence to the county schools in the 2002 to 2003 academic year. The students and teachers loved her for her energy and enthusiasm, which has not flagged a bit since then.
Cavalieri hasn’t stopped writing because she has this new laurel. Here’s her latest poem, about her latest job:
Terms of Office
for Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. January 16, 2019
May our Governor hear the language of the people
as terms of his office.
“Language” simply means many people
Have come together to make words.
There are nearly 100,000 words in the English language
I’ve chosen exactly 246, but I want to shine them up
To speak about a man serving in high office;
A man who will walk by the beautiful waters
Of our bays, rivers, rivulets;
One who continues with inner strength
Clearing new paths with elasticity for every kind among us—
Who knows love and hope are not holiday greetings
But governing principles—
A man aspirational for humanity.
Language always leads us to the soul of each matter,
And today it rinses words clean, renewing meaning:
Independence of thought
An honorable nature
Calm in the eye of national storms.
From the rich bottom lands of southern Maryland
To the forested hills of our western state—
From the dynamic energy of northern Maryland
To his own hometown—
May our Governor’s inner spirit seek compassion before action,
May his wisdom see that the heart’s choice dictates the mind’s decisions,
May he be rewarded with radiant pride for his integrity.
In speaking of success, Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“Each one has an aptitude to do easily some feat impossible to any other
And to do otherwise undermines the talents of all others.”
May Governor Hogan be rewarded with radiant pride for his integrity.
Maryland Poet Laureate
Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary