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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

When our country leaves us speechless, it's time for a poet to step in

Ada Limón, who teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University, has been named the 24th poet laureate of the United States. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, talks about the role of poets — and other artists — in these unpoetic times.

Some days it feels like our country doesn’t need a poet laureate as much as we need a construction laureate, to do a teardown and build us back up again.

Or maybe an exterminator laureate, to go down in our country’s crawl space and spray for bugs and vermin.

The poet laureate is a lot less drain on the budget, though — the job pays $35,000 a year. Our newest poet laureate, named last week, is Ada Limón. She grew up in California, lives in Kentucky, and teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University here in Charlotte.

Limón was a guest on my podcast, SOUTHBOUND, about a year and a half ago. One of the things she talked about was how to find hope in such troubling times.

“I love that quote by Richard Hugo, which is ‘Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance,’” she said. “And I still believe in that chance. And I don’t know if it’s always hope, right? I don’t know if it’s always hope, I think sometimes it’s just survival. And survival feels like hope because it’s all you can muster. But I do—I still believe in the chance, and I still want to be here for that chance.”

So many of her poems are about sticking around, toughing it out, finding the best in whatever situation you’re in. I love these lines from her poem “State Bird,” where she writes about not having wanted to make the move to Kentucky with her husband. She says:

… I denied it, this new land.
But, love, I’ll concede this:
whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird,
the loud, obvious blur of song people point to
when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.

Of course a poem is never about just one thing, and it means something a little different to everyone. When I re-read it the other day, after the latest Jan. 6 hearing, I saw something there about a country that’s not gone, exactly, but has been lost in a fog of delusion. It’s in need of clear-eyed people help us find our way through.

We don’t have to have a poet laureate, in the same way we don’t have to have national parks. But they’re both reminders of the best version of this country, the sheer beauty of it, the immense potential of what we can do and be together.

Sometimes I try to deny this new country we’re in, like Ada Limón tried to deny her new home. Sometimes I can’t believe this is where we’ve ended up. But I still believe in those little birds, trying to sing us toward better days.


Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.