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Thursday, June 12, 2003 02:20 pm

Illinois’ lost laureate

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Quick--who was the first poet laureate of Illinois? If you said Carl Sandburg, you'd be wrong.

Don't feel too bad; Governor Rod Blagojevich didn't know either. When he announced his search for a new principal poet, he mentioned only two: "This individual will follow in the footsteps of previous Poet Laureates Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks," Blagojevich said.

What he meant to say was Howard Austin, Sandburg, and Brooks.

Who is Howard Austin? If he were alive today, we could call him the "improv poet." Austin, who lived in Springfield most of his life, had a peculiar precocity for composing verse on the fly. He would attend a social gathering--a book club meeting, perhaps--and then stand and recap the night's activities with a freshly-minted poem.

"Howard Austin's method of publishing was different than some. Many of his works were presented directly to the public at meetings," recalls 73-year-old Dean Austin, Howard Austin's youngest son. The fact that these verses were usually delivered in musical form, accompanied by a quartet called the Pawnee Four, probably added to Austin's popularity, though not his cultural prestige.

In fact, soon after Governor Henry Horner dubbed Austin poet laureate--spontaneously, after hearing him create an off-the-cuff couplet at a 1936 meeting of the Ladies of Sangamon County Democracy--the esteemed magazine Poetry published an open letter to Horner from editor Harriet Monroe protesting news of Austin's appointment, which she had read in the daily paper: "I hope you can deny this item, as such an appointment of a worthless versifier would be a disgrace to the State of Illinois," she wrote.

A later item in the same magazine implies Austin's laureate label was a lark, but Dean Austin believes his father was the official poet laureate from 1936 until Sandburg was appointed in 1962.

"At the time my father was appointed Poet Laureate, there were many news articles and publications about the event," Dean explains. "My father appeared on the platform with Governor Horner numerous times. It was through that relationship that the Governor came to know him, and became so impressed with my father's gift of writing poetry." Horner often fell victim to Austin's wit, yet the governor remained a strong fan of his work.

Dean has made every effort to not let his father's legacy be forgotten or ignored. His family Web site, http://www.adaustin.com/HBA details Howard Austin's life and has samples of his poetry. Dean's son, Roger Austin, is writing a biography of his grandfather--all in the hopes of rewriting history.

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