Missouri's first poet laureate speaks at Central High School

Thursday, September 18, 2008
AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com Missouri Poet Laureate Walter Bargain talks to students at Central High School about poetry and literature Wednesday in the school's library.

Librarian Julia Jorgensen joked that Central High School is probably the only school in the nation to have its booster club pay for a poet to visit.

Missouri's first poet laureate, Walter Bargen, spoke about imagination, creativity and the power of a single word to classes of English students Wednesday.

Since his January appointment, the even-keeled and introspective poet has seen a flurry of interest in his work, something that appears to make him slightly uneasy. He is adjusting and learning as he goes, he said.

The Ashland, Mo., resident has written more than 10 books of poetry and two chapbooks; topics range from "a concern about the health of the planet" to "concern about conflict and how to resolve conflict." At times humorous, at times mournful, the poems invoke a wide range of responses. One reviewer wrote of Bargen that he is "impossible to label" because of his variety of styles and topics. Another admired how Bargen is "at once accessible and complex," and author Debra Di Blasi considers Bargen "America's best sociopolitical poet with a marvelous gift for lyricism."

Besides speaking at Central, Bargen led a poetry reading and question-and-answer session at the Rose Theatre.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, poetry has seen a revivification, Bargen said. "In times of trouble, in times of grief, it's poetry that offers a solace," he said.

Bargen encouraged students to record their stories and read more, saying the need to explore and demonstrate curiosity is imperative. "My gosh do we need imagination right now to get us out of the problems we face," he said.

Reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg and his own, Bargen tried to show the students how poetry can display passion in a single word, how a good poet should "stun you with clarity," and how ordinary life occurrence can be the best fodder for writing.

English teachers noted afterward that poetry can intimidate students. "They're just learning to express themselves, so to express yourself in words is difficult," said teacher Julie Stausing.

Stausing said she uses popular, quality song lyrics to transition students into poetry.

Molly Broughton, a senior taking Advanced Placement English, said a big emphasis is placed on poetry. "I love the way the words run together and the way it sounds," she said.

That differs from Bargen's attitude about poetry while in school. When he first studied poetry he said it was a "disaster," as students tried to "beat the meaning of it." He opted out of an English degree in college, instead majoring in philosophy while at the University of Missouri and going back for a master's degree in education.

As poet laureate, Bargen is expected to promote the arts, speak at public libraries and schools and write a poem about Missouri. Every other week he contributes work to the St. Louis Post- Dispatch.

"Poetry moves us in ways other forms of writing can't," he said.


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