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Poetry may outlast these laureates' woes

October 23, 2002|TIM RUTTEN

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all

-- W.H. Auden ("In Memory of W.B. Yeats")


As the governors of California and New Jersey now have discovered, living poets can be as inconvenient as they are stirring.

Unlike their dead colleagues -- whose well-bound and edited "selected works" are a reliable source of eloquent platform allusions and uplifting wedding party sentiments -- living poets frequently behave like, well, poets.

Some are prone to confuse the prophetic with extravagant foolishness. Many believe that the ecstatic and the orgiastic are subjects just as suitable as the edifying. Some are sinister fools. Many others are in the process of living the same sort of messy, contradictory lives as everyone else -- though usually more poetically.

Auden himself was no stranger to those facts. Neither are Quincy Troupe, 62, who resigned last week as California's first official poet laureate, and Amiri Baraka, 67, who is locked in a fight to the finish to hold on to the same post in New Jersey. There already is a tendency to link their names, since both are enmeshed in controversy and both are African American artists. However, any similarity to their situations ends with those superficial facts.

Since his appointment by Gov. Gray Davis in June, Troupe has been an exemplary poet laureate. He resigned -- voluntarily and at his own initiative -- Friday, after a routine background check preceeding his confirmation by the state Senate uncovered a 30-year-old lie on his resume. Though Troupe, who is also a professor of creative writing and American and Caribbean literature at UC San Diego, attended Grambling College in Louisiana, he did not graduate, as his resume says.

None of this has anything to do with his long career as a poet who has produced seven collections of poetry, nor as a writer whose other seven books include a masterful portrait, "Miles and Me," nor as a teacher whose courses are annually oversubscribed and whose students have gone on to win MacArthur, Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation grants.

Baraka -- the Newark poet formerly known as LeRoi Jones -- is another matter entirely. During a poetry reading last month, he recited a long work, "Somebody Blew Up America," in which he repeated the discredited slander that the World Trade Center's Israeli tenants stayed away on Sept. 11 because they had been warned of the impending terrorist attack:


Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away.


Elsewhere in the poem, Baraka repeats another anti-Israeli calumny:

Who knows why Five Israelis was filming the explosion

And cracking they sides at the notion


All sorts of New Jersey groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, reacted with understandable revulsion. Gov. James E. McGreevey demanded that Baraka resign his honorary post and, when the poet refused, the state legislature began drafting a law that will allow the governor to fire the laureate.

As these facts would suggest, the two poets also take entirely different attitudes toward their situations.

"I deeply regret this whole thing," Troupe said Tuesday. The fabrication, he said, "went on my resume about seven years into my academic career, when I was a lecturer at the College of Staten Island in the City University of New York. Somebody told me I would never get on the tenure line unless I changed my resume. So, I just did it and, since then, it never came up. Since then, I've made my living by my chops, writing and publishing books and teaching."

Troupe said UCSD officials called him at his La Jolla home Oct. 10. "They said this had come to their attention, and was it true? I admitted it immediately," Troupe said.

"We started talking about what we should do, and I said, 'I think I should resign.' I had already talked to somebody else, and they said, 'If you resign, it will be done gracefully,' and I agreed with that."

Troupe said he called the governor's office and said he intended to withdraw. "Everyone there was extremely sad that I was leaving." Still, Troupe said, "as a realist, I understand that this is a political season and they are in an electoral race. A lot of political considerations would have come into play. But I'm not blaming anybody -- not the Senate Rules Committee, nor the governor's office. What I want them to focus on is why they picked me in the first place. This has nothing to do with my performance as poet laureate of this state."

Troupe said he still is unsure what impact the revelation will have on his professorship. "They gave me every assurance they want me to stay here," he said. "I've given my life to teaching and they know that."

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