Why A Poet Laureate?

If you are lucky, you are stopped in your tracks, from time to time, by beauty. It happens often in Door County, as it’s almost routine to be arrested by something remarkable: a rainbow over a field of grain, waves splashing Cave Point, a boat sailing into the setting sun, a meadow of wildflowers dancing in the wind. The list doesn’t stop with natural things, either: a haunting melody played perfectly by a string quartet, the remarkable lightness of a clay pot on the shelves of a potter’s shop, the luminescence in a watercolor that hangs on a gallery wall, the laughter of a child as she watches actors on a stage.

This is the power of art – to move us away from a place of dullness to a place where we think, where we feel, where we wonder.

Consider what a person who never sees beauty misses. Consider the loss to never be stabbed by that bittersweet pang of a beautiful oil painting, or the sight of shimmering light on water, or the words on a page that need to be reread because they are so true. Several years ago, I taught high school English in a low-income, urban school. Many of my students had challenges that no kid should have – hunger, absent parents, temporary homes, untreated health problems, and a host of other problems that come with poverty. I once asked my classes to write about the most beautiful place they’d ever been. Several of my students had nothing to write, not even a few sentences.

Beyond this making me incredibly sad, it made me buckle down in my efforts to help my students find beauty in their everyday lives. It was unlikely that they would see whales breaching in the ocean or watch a sunrise over the Alps, but could I give them a poem with words so beautiful that the lines could make them cry? Could they identify with a character in a novel and see there is beauty in being sacrificial, courageous, kind? Perhaps my students could not see the Milky Way in the night sky over Lake Michigan, but they could read words on a page and feel something. Poetry was the easiest way to make that beauty happen.

All of this is a long lead-in to the reason we need Poets Laureate. The country’s official designation of United States Poet Laureate is an affirmation by our society that words matter and that art matters and that beauty of all kinds matters. Twenty-two poets have served terms since the office began in 1985.

United States Poets Laureate often travel the country to give readings, conduct workshops and make poetry accessible to the public in interesting ways. The duties of a poet laureate are not clearly defined; this gives each poet a chance to focus on his or her own project. Billy Collins started Project 180 with the goal to get one accessible poem each day into the ears of high school kids. Gwendolyn Brooks met frequently with elementary school children. Joseph Brodsky advocated the placement of poems in public places like airports and supermarkets. Ted Kooser campaigned for everyone to carry a favorite poem in his or her pocket.

Our current Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, is using much of her time to bring poetry to rural parts of the country. In a remarkable honor for our area, Smith will visit Door County in October. Write On, Door County will host her visit as she conducts workshops in schools and presents a public program Oct. 11 at the Southern Door Community Auditorium.

Beyond these poets of national prominence, it is noteworthy that we live in a state that also designates a Wisconsin Poet Laureate. The post is currently held by Karla Huston who, in her tenure, has already traveled to Door County to conduct workshops and readings.

In 2010, Door County began a Poet Laureate appointment, and five poets have served two-year terms. According to the Door County Board of Supervisors, “the primary mission of the poet laureate is to raise the county consciousness to a greater appreciation to the reading and writing of poetry.” Sharon Auberle, who currently holds the post, has written and read poems at official functions, organized poetry potlucks, and led numerous workshops to promote poetry across the county.

The gifts of these many poets laureate who include Door County in their visits are not only an honor to the county, but also an encouragement to Write On. The organization maintains a writer’s residence where more than 100 writers have stayed since 2012 to work on their craft. Write On offers classes, workshops, and conferences geared to all ages with the hope of promoting reading and writing as a way to improve lives. It’s encouraging to have notable speakers and writers visit here who share this vision.

If we take the time to listen to the words of these poets as they visit our peninsula, it’s likely that we’ll be touched – and maybe even stopped in our tracks – by beauty.

Ann Heyse is a board member of Write On, Door County. Author of Good Morning, Door County, she is also a poet and essayist. Follow her blog at

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, Inc., which contributes Culture Club throughout the summer season, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.


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