Hey, did you know that Columbia had a poet laureate? Neither did I. It’s a new thing.
Anyway, the city’s first-ever official poet is USC English prof Ed Madden. This caused me to quote Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf: “I know him!” Which is not something I can usually say about distinguished poets.
Ed was one of the first batch of eight Community Columnists we appointed back when I was first editorial page editor at The State, winning out over hundreds of competing entries in our contest. He and the others would write one column each a month for our op-ed page, for which we’d pay them a modest fee. Back in the days when there was money for such things.
So I knew he could write. I just didn’t know he did it in verse.
And you know what? The poem he read before the mayor’s State of the City speech last night is pretty good. Not to pick on Marjory Wentworth, but I think his piece was better than the one that she didn’t get to read at the Haley shindig. Having majored in history and journalism, I don’t have the words for explaining why that is, except to say that it strikes me as way literary and stuff.
A Story of the City
(for the 2015 State of the City Address by Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin, 20 Jan 2015)
In the story, there is a city, its streets
straight as a grid, and in the east, the hills,
in the west, a river. In the story,
someone prays to a god, though we don’t
know yet if it is a prayer of praise
or a prayer for healing — so much depends
on this — his back to us, or hers, shoulders
bent. We hear the murmur of it, the urgency.
In the story a man is packing up
a box of things at a desk, a woman is sitting
in a car outside the grocery as if
she can’t bring herself to go in, not yet.
Or is the man unpacking, setting a photo
of his family on the desk, claiming it?
And is the woman writing a message to someone—
her sister maybe, a friend? In the story,
a child is reading, sunlight coming through
the window. In the story, the trees are thicker,
and green. In the story, a child is reading,
yes, and his father watches, uncertain
about something. There is a mother, maybe
an aunt, an uncle, another father. These things
change each time we open the book, start
reading the story over. Sometimes a story
about trees, sometimes about a city
of light, the city beyond the windows of a dark
pub, now lucent and glimmering. Or sometimes
a story about a ghost, his clothes threaded
with fatigue and smoke, with burning—you smell him
as he enters the room, and you wonder
about that distant city he fled, soot-shod,
looking back in falling ash at the past.
Sometimes it’s a story about someone
singing. Or someone signing a form, or speaking
before a crowd, or shouting outside a building
that looks important, if only for the flag there,
or the columns, or the well-kept lawn.
By now it’s maybe your story, and the child
is your child, or you, or maybe we’re telling
the story together, as people do, sitting
at a table in a warm room, the meal
finished, the night dark, a candle lit,
an empty cup left out for a prophet,
an empty chair, maybe, for a dead friend,
a room filled with words, filled with voices,
the living and the dead, someone telling
a story about the people we are meant to be.
Ed Madden, Poet Laureate, City of Columbia