Columbia’s new poet laureate, Ed Madden

Hey, did you know that Columbia had a poet laureate? Neither did I. It’s a new thing.

In fact, it didn’t become official until after the governor’s people had ditched the state’s poet from the inauguration ceremony — although the city had apparently made the decision to create the office earlier.

There’s a release about it here.

Madden,Ed 2008

Ed Madden — 2008

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.

Here it is:

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

Above is video of him reading it. Click on this link to go straight to the poem.

9 thoughts on “Columbia’s new poet laureate, Ed Madden

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Hey, sorry about the video! When I first called it up, it went straight to Ed’s part (and if you click on that link, it will do so for you). Then after I embedded it, that didn’t happen.

    The poem is introduced right at the 10-minute mark. If you started at the beginning and waited, it probably got pretty tedious. Sorry…

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Nice poem!
    I scratched my head over all of last week’s poems in The New Yorker. It’s nice to read poetry and understand it.
    So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow….

  3. Brad Warthen

    This is cool…

    Right after I posted this, W.B. Yeats started following me on Twitter.

    My fave:

    I know that I shall meet my fate
    Somewhere among the clouds above;
    Those that I fight I do not hate
    Those that I guard I do not love…

    And so forth…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, maybe that’s not my fave. Maybe this is:

      Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
      The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
      The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.

  4. Silence

    I sthe poet laureate a paid position? Because I would have a problem with that. Otherwise, I’ll go back to ignoring poetry, just like I have since grade school.

  5. Doug Ross

    Apparently a poem is where you
    take a paragraph of text and insert
    line breaks
    randomly. And then you throw in
    some words, and some commas, and
    an occasional semicolon; just; to; make
    think “Oooh, this is

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Not at all. Now I’ll confess I sort of felt that way about the state poet laureate’s poem. It seemed too prosaic to qualify.

      But this has a rhythm to it, and makes evocative use of language that distinguishes it to some extent from prose.

      All of that said, I’m with you, Doug, in preferring poetry that rhymes and has a definite, obvious rhythmic structure. I’m old school. I prefer Dickinson, Coleridge, Poe, Tennyson, Kipling. You know right off that’s poetry; you can tell from a mile away…

    2. Barry

      I think the poem above is pretty bad.

      Similar to my effort here

      Trains leaving the station
      Leaves blowing along the tracks
      Water falls from the heavy clouds
      My feet smell like crap

  6. Ed Madden

    Thanks for the post, Brad, and for the kind words.

    No, the position is not a paid position. It does come with a small budget to use to promote the arts in the schools and the community.

    Sorry if the poem doesn’t satisfy everyone. 🙂 Hard to do that, especially writing quickly for a public occasion like this. I’ll try harder next time! I wanted to somehow capture the idea that a community, a city, a family can be defined by the stories we tell and retell about ourselves. (That was the topic of one of those columns I wrote so very long ago for you at The State.)

    The poem is in blank verse, unrhymed pentameter, an old form. That is, the line breaks are not arbitrary at all, though I did roughen up (or loosen up) the more conventional iambic rhythm in order to more closely fit the sound of speech. The last couple of lines are an echo of the poem Arkansas poet Miller Williams read at Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration. Williams passed away on Jan 1. That little echo was, I hope, a small gesture to honor him.

    Again, thanks for noticing the poem, and for your kind words.

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