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What is a Poet Laureate Anyway?

Which brings me to Lee Mccormack, the first Poet Laureate of Martha’s Vineyard!

West Tisbury started it several years ago with a very worthy first choice, Daniel Waters, who set the bar high for his esteemed successors, Fan Ogilvie and Justen Ahren.  We heard rumors and murmurs that Vineyard Haven was considering a similar position, but nothing came of it. This year Edgartown jumped into the game with another terrific choice, Steve Ewing, the people’s poet, if you will, who builds docks and wears a kilt reciting Bobby Burns.

Just this past week there was great fanfare as three of these four Poet Laureates -- Justen Ahren, Steve Ewing and Dan Waters -- presented themselves and their poems and songs at a , part of the Featherstone Summer Poetry Festival.  

The rise of interest in poetry is nothing short of astonishing in this media-rich time. Yet it may be that rap and hip-hop recordings, poetry slams, and the immediacy of the spoken word have found a chord that no other art form can articulate.

But what is it a Poet Laureate actually does?

Nothing much, it turns out. Poets are notoriously lazy and just scribble a few lines here and there for which they are given very little in return. Ah, but Poet Laureates!  These are the jewels in the crown. These are the poets who commemorate events, who get all the acclaim – and traditionally a laurel wreath to wear like a crown, hence the name Laureate.

Which brings me to Lee Mccormack, the first Poet Laureate of Martha’s Vineyard.

Some months ago William Waterway Marks, who shepherds the Cleaveland House Poets, came to the conclusion that, while it is great to have town poet laureates, who commemorate town meetings with a verse benediction or who visit the schools and perform, what we really needed was an island-wide Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate. And so Waterway began to spread the idea around, visiting meetings of selectpersons, speaking to island librarians and getting the word out to the poetry community. Stalwart stuff and unselfish, Waterway’s work paved the way. He created a Facebook group Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society. He put out a call for poets to submit their work to a panel of ten impartial judges selected from the community, and he worked through all of the manuscripts from seventeen poets, making sure everyone had a fair and unbiased chance to win the Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate honor.

Lee Mccormack was one of those poets. His poems had become familiar over the winter as he would post his astonishing new work regularly in the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society Facebook group. The poems were staggering in their beauty, their humanity and their imaginative use of language, and everyone knew it immediately. Where had this guy been?  Mccormack’s poems were received with raves on Facebook and the Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate judges felt the same.

When the word came down that Lee Mccormack was to be named Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate there was an outpouring of gratitude for the rightness of this choice. Let me quote a very recent poem in full to give you an idea of what I mean.

What Use Complaining?

Because of this modern age, this time of genetics and steel,
there's no place left for mystery. To still use words, 
absolution, spirit, salvation, soul. . . It's useless —
we're too uneasy. A friend says, I'm cold.
(Put on a coat.) No — it's this frozen disbelief. . .
If the sun collapses tomorrow it couldn't be worse.
I knew what he was saying — isn't this the way
we feel, trapped in a backyard of senses,
chained to a fence of sleet?

If the weather's changing, the wind
cannibalizes itself and the sky is eaten, so what?
Who sees fingerprints of friends that OD'd
coruscate on an empty glass,
or kisses the lipstick impression
of their mother's mouth on a knife
blade while preparing a meal?
Now who goes out, leaves the gate open,
and talks to the dead except to say, You belong to me?

I used to count on things — the consistency
of blood, its ability to overcome
gravity in the morning and still be
passionate at night. . . And even if nature
disciplines us with a stick, I will go on
believing hands should caress,
except. . . Even sex is a danger now
and passion only happens when the wind
rattles its knuckles against closed doors.

What's left? A photograph or two,
a few glances, the storm-wrenched back of a tree. . .
Some prayers for the dead, the cries
of plovers returning to nest
in marshes of salt-burned grass. . .
And the unfinished work, the nervous sweat
of windows seeping light into the neck
of a headless, evening mist rising
like Lazarus from the sea.

LHM © 2012

Of course, Lee Mccormack has a lighter side which many know from his satirical Cluck-o-Matic corporation, his many witty posts and acerbic comments on Facebook. He seems to be a master of that, too.

When I mentioned to him casually that if he were chosen Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate he would have to write a shark poem because his investiture would be announced at JawsFest on the big stage, Mccormack came up with this clever verse:

Chomp chomp chomp
went their great big teeth.
That's one more human
that can't hurt the reef.

Ok, you get the idea. Lee Mccormack is not only a fine and serious poet, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously either, and, believe me, that is as rare in poetry as the porcelain dentures worn by Nancy Luce’s hens.

Well, here’s to Lee Mccormack, the first Poet Laureate of the entire island of Martha’s Vineyard! Long may he reign!

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Carol Lashnits July 20, 2012 at 09:24 PM
What wonderful news!! He would've gotten my vote for sure!
Michael West July 20, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Yes, I think it was a landslide, Carol. And Kudos to Lee. And much gratitude to William Waterway Marks.
Lee H. Mccormack July 20, 2012 at 10:21 PM
6:10 PM Fearful Friday -- Michael, I only found out about this a few minutes ago - first from William Waterway, who I must thank for his friendship, encouragement, energy, and time in making poetry such a major focus for us all here on the Vineyard, and who left me a wonderful congratulatory message telling me this, and now here from you, a special long-time encouraging friend and companion in this criminal activity of poetry. I can only say, I am a bit stunned, a little amused, and feeling very honored and humble by this, as I know many fine poets submitted and judged this. Thank you for pointing out that seriousness is not a necessary criteria for writing or living, and as the year travels through us in its turns and twists, I only hope I can properly do what needs to be done to uphold this honor. LHM
Michael West July 21, 2012 at 12:08 AM
Richly deserved, Lee. So many people are thrilled for you.
ellie bates July 21, 2012 at 02:31 AM
LEE, We are honored to have you as our first MV Poet Laureate! KUDOS! BLESSINGS! Ellie Bates
Pat Mc Mahon July 21, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Congratulations to you Lee, you are so loved and appreciated. Now it appears to be official. Thank you to Michael West for passing this on to me. Appreciation and acknowledgement from long time friends, neighbors and fellow poets , must feel like the best there can be.
Michael West July 21, 2012 at 12:08 PM
The kudos continue...
Holly Nadler July 21, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Lee, do you have to dress up in a suit and tie and learn a secret hand-shake?
barb Molloy July 22, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Deeply happy to learn of Lee receiving this honor - well deserved. I also find it so encouraging that true appreciation of Poetry has been revived and is flourishing. Congratulations to all who participate in creating and encouraging this!
Michael West July 23, 2012 at 08:14 PM
Holly, maybe Lee won't admit it, but poet laureates apparently do have an elaborate handshake that includes at the finale bumping butts. You have to see it to believe it. Barb, I'm thinking that poetry is finding its audiences again thanks to the Internet after centuries of relying on books. Now books are still an important means of distribution, but the Internet brings poetry alive in bite-sized pieces...
B.Martin Wlodyka July 24, 2012 at 02:17 AM
I learned of this three days after the announcement and I could not be happier for Lee. I, like Ellie had posted on MV Poets, had thought of the laurel wreath, but then considered Lee's straw hat and thought it suits him better really. It's not what's on his head but what's inside it that makes him our Poet Laureate. The way he speaks to the unspeakable, those subtle shades of the human journey, and alchemizes them into lines, of words to share, not words but the distillation of living, is an act of the highest order. Art has purpose, to make another feel, and in this he succeeds exceedingly well.
Michael West July 24, 2012 at 06:21 AM
B.Martin Wlodyka, thank you for your comment.
David McCormack August 23, 2012 at 06:34 AM
I am not only proud to call Lee McCormack the Poet Laureate of Martha's Vineyard, but also my beloved Brother from the same Mother!!
William Waterway August 23, 2012 at 11:10 AM
David, I am sure your mother is proud of both you and Lee as her sons.
Adrianne Ryan August 24, 2012 at 04:59 AM
Lee was the right choice and this was a fine article . Kudos to you both.

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