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Mizzou Wire

Poetry gets wings

Missouri’s first-ever poet laureate will spread the word

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Jan. 14, 2008
Walter Bargen

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Walter Bargen deals in imagery, whether he's imitating a mural of birds in his office or writing stunning and occasionally surreal poetry. Click above to hear Bargen read selections of his poetry. A transcript is available.

There’s a reason Walter Bargen carries a notebook in his pocket. Without it, the moments that become poetry might slip away: the time he spent sitting in his car at a Columbia stoplight as voices on the radio chattered about war in the Middle East; the snow day when he tried to interest his teenage daughter in the Tao Te Ching; the sublime climb up a mountain in bone-chilling winds.

“When you sit down to write,” Bargen says, “if nothing’s coming, you just open your notebook and say, ‘Ah, here’s a place to start.’ ”

As Missouri’s first-ever poet laureate, Bargen offers the state’s new program a place to start. Gov. Matt Blunt created the poet laureate position by executive order in October 2007. After a nomination and review process by the governor’s office and the Missouri Center for the Book, the Ashland resident emerged from a field of nominees and received the poet laureate title on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The resulting publicity has surprised Bargen. Friends tell him they heard one of his poems on the radio. His face appears in newspapers around the state. He has to balance his full-time job at the College of Education’s Assessment Resource Center with interviews with reporters. “Suddenly, I’m a very public presence,” he says.

Not that he’s complaining. To Bargen, who graduated from Mizzou in 1970 with a degree in philosophy and earned a master’s in education in 1990, the position provides a chance to highlight the arts in the state — particularly poetry.

For him, it all started with a frustrated ninth-grade English teacher. One day, this teacher challenged Bargen and his classmates to write an “adult” sentence, then chided them when they produced simple declarative sentences: a subject, a verb, maybe an object. That teacher helped Bargen realize that language can be much more than utilitarian. Now, he gets a chance to spread that message through appearances at libraries, schools and literary festivals.

Bargen has written 11 books and been published in more than 100 magazines. He wrote his first book, Fields of Thenar, in 1980, back when his main focus was vivid and sometimes surreal images. Over time, though, Bargen has added more narrative elements to his imagery, to the point where his 2005 William Rockhill Nelson Award winner The Feast exists somewhere between poetry and prose.

“I tried to coin a word: povella, merging poetry and novella together,” Bargen says. “It’s stretching whatever boundaries I’m capable of stretching.”

As poet laureate, Bargen will compose a new original poem about Missouri. That’s no big challenge. Places in Missouri — particularly bodies of water — fill his poems already. So do references to philosophers and artists of the past, a clear nod to Bargen’s notion that nothing is fully new.

Take the authors of Greek tragedies and comedies, for example. “They were wrestling with the problems of being human,” Bargen says. “Twenty-five hundred years later, we’re still doing the same thing.”

Read more in:  Arts & CultureBeyond Campus

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Last updated: June 6, 2013