Missouri's first poet laureate found the job engaging, consuming

Thursday, December 31, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Walter Bargen has served as Missouri's first poet laureate for two years. He is shown here in MU's Ellis Library.

COLUMBIA — Walter Bargen thought becoming Missouri’s first poet laureate meant receiving another certificate to add to his collection of awards, and that’s about it. 

Now, nearly two years, 100 events and 10,000 listeners later, he realizes his mistake.

Nominations are sought

Nominees must be a Missouri resident and be a published poet, active in the poetry community and willing and able to promote poetry in the state throughout a two-year term. The post is unpaid.

A downloadable application is available at and must be submitted with three attached poems by Jan. 14, 2010.

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“I was quite naive to the amount of interest that would be generated with the position,” Bargen said. “Now I feel like I’ve been able to bring poetry out of the dust bin and back to the people in ways I never thought I could.”

The Library of Congress says 40 states and the District of Columbia have poet laureates; former Gov. Matt Blunt created the position for Missouri in 2008. Now, with Bargen's two-year term expiring in January 2010, the search is on for a new poet laureate.

In a news release encouraging nominations, Gov. Jay Nixon said he thinks that by having a poet laureate, homage is paid to "such timeless bards as Samuel Clemens, Maya Angelou and Laura Ingalls Wilder." Each has a Missouri tie.

“I don’t know why every state doesn’t have it,” Bargen said. “The poet laureate becomes a vehicle for reminding people how important it is to listen to language.”

Blunt and an advisory committee chose Bargen from among four finalists.

“He really went above and beyond the call,” Kris Kleindienst, a committee member and co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, said of Bargen. “We asked him to do six events, and he ended up doing over 100. He’s outstanding.”

Bargen has done readings and presentations across the state at libraries, retirement homes, schools, libraries, book festivals and universities. Before he became poet laureate, he estimates he did one-eighth that number of readings.

"And whoever bothered to interview me then?" said Bargen, now well accustomed to the press.

Bargen, who lives in Ashland, also has a full-time job at MU. He is a senior coordinator at the Assessment Resource Center in the College of Education, where he has worked for more than 20 years.

“I can’t say 'no' to people — it’s been a lifelong problem,” he said. “There was one week last April when I was scheduled to do four different events in four different places.”

Over-scheduling himself allowed Bargen to take poetry to as many people as he could, some of whom were skeptical at first.

“It wasn’t unusual for a man to come up after a reading and say, ‘My wife dragged me here and I didn’t expect I would enjoy it, but I truly did,’” he said.

Although moments like that made being the poet laureate worthwhile, Bargen, 61, said it definitely took away from his writing time. He joked that “actually having time to write” is what now inspires his work.

“If I was retired, it would be pure joy, but having to do the balance between having a full-time job and being the poet laureate definitely creates a certain anxiety,” he said.

Poetry has been a part of Bargen’s life since his junior year of high school in Benton, when he remembers completing his first poem. Bargen, who has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master's in English education from MU, has 13 published books of poetry, and his work has appeared in more than 100 magazines.

“He’s done more for Missouri poetry than anyone I can think of,” committee member Kevin Prufer said. “I wish we could keep him forever.”

Prufer, who has published four collections of poetry, is again on the committee to find the state's next poet laureate.

“Missouri has a very deep and long history when it comes to poetry,” Prufer said. “Having a poet laureate is a way that we do something to promote it.”

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Denise Low December 31, 2009 | 10:57 a.m.

Congratulations from the former Kansas poet laureate. I know what a great job Walter has done. Here's best wishes for the state of Missouri finding a worthy successor.

Denise Low

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