As he was about to be appointed the new Illinois poet laureate, Kevin Stein looked out at an audience that included the state's top elected official and other luminaries, and couldn't help but wonder.
"A big crowd for poetry," he said. "I'm always surprised."
Stein, who serves as the Caterpillar Professor of English at Bradley University, was the final choice for laureate, among a field of twenty-six bards from across the state. On hand at the Illinois State Library for the ceremony Dec. 11, were Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, who chaired the selection committee that included poets, librarians, professors, and arts administrators, as well as Nora Blakely, the daughter of former Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks.
Of Brooks Stein said: "I feel like Pete Myers when the coach of the Chicago Bulls told him, 'Michael Jordan is retiring, and you're replacing him.'"
Anyone familiar with Stein's work, however, knows that he can hold court with the very best, and Illinois has found what the governor calls "a sterling ambassador for the arts."
With his appointment, Stein becomes the fourth poet laureate in the history of the state. He follows Howard B. Austin (1936-1962), Carl Sandburg (1962-1967), and Gwendolyn Brooks (1968-2000). The post, vacant since Brooks's death, will now be filled by various poets who will serve four-year terms. If this sounds a bit political, the marriage of poetry and politics has a long history. The word laureate, as Stein explained in his acceptance speech, comes from the crown of laurels worn by poets such as Petrarch who was bestowed with this symbol of honor by Rome in 1341.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English court poets praised king and country. While it is safe to assume that Kevin Stein is grateful to the current administration for giving him the opportunity that such an honor affords, it is doubtful he will spend the next four-year composing paeans to the Democratic Party. (Nor to be fair, is this what the governor sees as Stein's mission.)
Stein's selection must have come in part because of his enthusiastic belief that poetry can be made more available to the average reader. He outlined the ways in which he hopes to accomplish that task. He plans to establish a Web site to serve as a forum and showcase for Illinois poets. And because he realizes that poetry is a spoken as well as a written art, he plans to create a monthly radio show so the voices of Illinois poets may be heard. He will oversee poetry competitions for primary, middle, and high school students, and he will give at least four public readings each year during his term.
Stein had only one doubt when asked if he would serve. He had to feel confident that given this ambitious agenda, he would still have time to write poetry, which he calls "as necessary as bread or breath."
To date he has published five books of poetry. A Field of Wings was the first winner, in 1986, of the Illinois Writer Inc., chapbook competition. (Funded by the Illinois Arts Council but now defunct, this competition would be worthy of revival, perhaps a job for the next laureate.)
This chapbook was followed by another in 1988, The Figure Our Bodies Make. In 1992, the University of Missouri Press published a longer collection, A Circus of Want, which won the Devins Award for Poetry. Bruised Paradise came out in 1996, followed by Chance Ransom in2000. In 2001, Stein co-edited Illinois Voices: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry.
Stein's poetry is full of the images of everyday life, his life. But behind each image lies that universal spirit, reaching out to the reader, whispering you've been here, too. Stein is adept at painting scenery but his are not just painterly words on paper. Step into the frame, they seem to say, look out my window and how this particular slant of light casts its spell.
Perhaps Springfield's own John Knoepfle (and candidate for poet laureate) puts it best when he says, "Kevin Stein's poems are treasure houses of the spirit. This superb storyteller braves the insidious, the irrational, the unpredictable, the dangerous in our common lives."
In his acceptance, Stein quoted Marianne Moore, saying that the person who reads poetry deserves "a place for the genuine." Looking out over a field of yellow grass, in a poem of the same title Stein says, "It moves with the honesty / of a child / writing her name in pencil."
He could have been talking about his poetry, for it too is genuine, and the committee has made a genuinely inspired selection.
This poem's subject is the cantaloupe tilting
its burnished head in the garden's black dirt.
Its sensuous tumescence. Its musky scent.
This poem does not give a gnat's whit about
tomatoes the learned once called "love apples."
This poem's subject is the ripening cantaloupe.
This poem does not rely on catalog, nor does
it switch topics unrelentingly. This poem
esteems the cantaloupe, from Italian Cantalupo,
papal village near Rome where the good pontiff
prayed hard for the seed to take hold. This poem
eyes the cantaloupe's spritz of dew first glisten
then vanish, its veined skin blush as sun comes on.
This poem has no particular interest in the watermelon
whose belly plunks not yet beneath a hand's tap.
This poem's subject is the ripening cantaloupe,
its fringed leaf and tendril corkscrewed around
the sweet pepper stalk as if around a little finger.
This poem bears no ill toward Cortland apples
hard as cats' hearts, nor the pears just assuming
their young breast shape, but this poem's subject
is the cantaloupe ripening in black dirt -- a moment
so near its stem has begun to unbutton. This poem
won't employ simile to imply the process is like
a woman's ripening, when mind rushes its juices
through her body's flushed fruit. This poem
is not meditative. Reader, do not ponder what
it means to ripen, wane, and die. This poem's
subject is the cantaloupe ripening in black dirt.
-- Kevin Stein