The Wrong Sort of Poet/The Kind That Makes a Difference/Rod's Gift to Film | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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The Wrong Sort of Poet/The Kind That Makes a Difference/Rod's Gift to Film

Illinois had a poet laurete before Carl Sandburg, but we'd rather not talk about that.


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The Wrong Sort of Poet

"I was trolling around on Google a couple of months ago," says Poetry Center of Chicago head Kenneth Clarke, "and I just happened to find this buried page on state poet laureates that's on the Library of Congress Web site." Clarke, who's campaigning to shorten the lifetime tenure currently awarded to Illinois' top poet, clicked on the link for our state thinking he knew what he'd find. He did a double take: "I was like, 'Who the hell is Howard B. Austin?' Because conventional wisdom is that Carl Sandburg was Illinois' first poet laureate."

According to the state library and everyone Clarke had ever discussed it with, Illinois has had only two poet laureates: Sandburg, who held the post from 1962 until his death in 1968 (even though he then lived in North Carolina), and Gwendolyn Brooks, who reigned from 1968 until she died in December 2000. But there, cited by no less an authority than the Library of Congress, was Howard B. Austin, Illinois poet laureate, appointed 1936. Clarke says he dug around a little more and soon found himself communicating with Austin's son, Dean, who had the following story to tell:

Howard Austin was a Springfield resident, an accountant, a man of faith, and a Democrat who was known for an unusual facility. He could sit all evening at an event--say, a political fund-raiser--listen to the after-dinner speeches, then get up and deliver a lengthy poem recapping the proceedings and often making fun of them. He usually did this in musical form accompanied by the quartet he led, the Pawnee Four. In January 1936, an Austin ditty was either sung or recited after a speech by Governor Henry Horner at a dinner for the Democratic women of Sangamon County. Horner was a bachelor, and Austin's poem suggested that he not be reelected unless he picked a bride. "No Bachelor for Governor, / But married he must be, / And sure as fate our Governor / Will yield submissively. / Then may we sit, content supreme, / No more we'll feel alone, / For future days will hold no fears, / With a woman on the throne." According to a local newspaper's account of the evening, Horner was so taken with Austin's wit that he promptly "dubbed him the 'poet laureate' of his administration."

Dean Austin says his father subsequently received an official certificate (which Dean hasn't been able to locate recently) and remained poet laureate until Sandburg got the job in 1962. Ever since, it's been an uphill battle for recognition. "It was just something that escaped Illinois' memory," observes Clarke. "Nobody wanted to embrace it. It's almost like people are embarrassed by it. But [Austin] wrote a form of poetry that was very popular at the time. A populist poetry that is pervasive and has its place in the canon." News of the "lost laureate" went up on the Poetry Center Web site.

But the Illinois State Library says there's nothing in its poet laureate files to indicate that Austin was ever officially appointed. On the contrary, there's evidence suggesting he wasn't. In the March 1936 issue of Poetry, editor Harriet Monroe published an open letter to Governor Horner objecting to Austin's appointment, which she had read about in the Chicago Daily News. "I hope you can deny this item," Monroe wrote, "as such an appointment of a worthless versifier would be a disgrace to the State of Illinois...and a severe indictment of a Governor who is supposed to consider the cultural...interests of the people who elected him." Two months later Monroe published an apology with an explanation: "Governor Horner assures us that his reference to a possible poet laureate was an after-dinner informality, and that there is no provision in the Illinois statutes for the appointment by the Governor or anyone else of such a poet."

What to make of this? Governor Horner, pushed in a corner? His poet, he's told, is low? So the file he purged, resisting the urge to tell the grande dame where to go?

Stay tuned.

The Kind That Makes a Difference

The Poetry Center will receive the Paul Berger Arts Entrepreneurship Award from Columbia College next month, and the center's press release announcing the honor touts a jaw-dropping statistic: "In the last two years, the Poetry Center's membership has increased one thousand percent." That's right, says Clarke. When he came to the center from the Ohio Historical Society three years ago, paid membership had just recently been instituted. "We had only about 20 members. Now we have about 300." So much for the visions of poetry mobs. Founded in 1973 by Paul Carroll and a little sleepy during some of the intervening years, the center now sends poets into 25 Chicago public schools for 20-week residencies and sponsors a series of readings that recently included the national poet laureate, Billy Collins. Operating from a small office provided by the School of the Art Institute on a budget of $280,000 (up from $99,000 when Clarke started), it publishes an annual poetry anthology called Hands on Stanzas (now at the printer) that this year will include work by 1,200 Chicago kids. Allen Turner, who sits on the center's advisory board as well as the board of Columbia College, nominated the center for the prize and says Clarke has energized it. "Ken has had an extraordinary impact," Turner says. "And the Poetry Center demonstrates what a dramatic effect a small organization can have on all the life of the city."

Rod's Gift to Film

Last week Governor Blagojevich got behind film-industry

legislation being promoted by the Illinois Film Office and the Illinois Production Alliance. Those two groups make a strong case that incentives are needed if Chicago's going to be competitive with locations in Canada and New Mexico. But the so-called "tax credit" they're pushing turns out to be more like a direct subsidy. In spite of its name, the Film Production Services Tax Credit Act has practically nothing to do with taxes: it's a rebate for 25 percent of Illinois labor costs and will be handed over even if a film incurs little or no state tax. Last we heard, it will appear as an amendment to House Bill 234; representative Skip Saviano was still tweaking the draft at press time, but the version we saw applies to production of TV commercials as well as sitcoms and feature films and sets no specific dollar limit on the amount of the rebate. Supporters are trying to rush it through before the legislative session ends next week; also still pending is HB 2222, which will use $15 million of state money to purchase the west-side soundstage Chicago Studio City for the convenience of filmmakers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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