Owed to Billy Joe

Today all the best poets are singers. That's why a singer should be Texas's next poet laureate.

Did you know that Texas has a poet laureate? I didn't until last week, when I was browsing the Net and came across an editorial in the Sacramento Bee that explored the issue of Arnold Schwarzenegger's selection of California's next state poet.

The article pointed out that most people don't know and even fewer care that California has a poet laureate, mainly because poetry in the traditional sense -- that is, that which is read in slim volumes or school textbooks -- has extremely little impact on most people's everyday life. And since so few care about poetry, the selection of a poet laureate becomes an extremely politicized affair conducted in what used to be called "smoke-filled rooms" -- on the one side, local politicos champion one of their constituents, who almost always happens to be some pie-eyed hack of dubious talents. On the other, you have the academics, who nominate a serious poet that only English graduate students know anything about.

To me, both of those types of poet have long been irrelevant. I've always thought that almost all of the very best Texas poetry has been not the kind you read, but the kind you sing along and listen to. Not all poets are fools, and the least foolish among them learned to sing and play an instrument and set his words to music -- after all, there's infinitely more esteem, glamour, sex, fame and money to be had when you express your truths at Gruene Hall than there is in any number of coffeehouses and university lecture halls, and what's more, all of it is more immediate, and any poet who tells you that he is not motivated by the pursuit of any or all of those things is flat-out lying. And so that's where most of the poets went, and, if you're a lover of Texas music, which often relies more on lyrical heft than the music from elsewhere in America, you're more than likely a lover of Texas poetry. You just don't think of it that way.

I looked up the list of Texas poets laureate. The first one -- selected in 1932 -- was Judd Mortimer Lewis of Houston. I must confess I haven't heard of him, nor any of the other poets laureate since then, save for Vassar Miller, and in that same time span Texas has given rise to singing poets such as Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lyle Lovett, the Robison brothers, Willie Nelson and Ray Wylie Hubbard, among dozens of others. It's a shame that not one of these people -- each of whose words are known and loved by many thousands of Texans -- has ever served as Texas Poet Laureate. (The Texas Music Office does select a Texas Musician of the Year, but so far the selections have been classical musician James Dick and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, neither of whom is well known for lyrical prowess.)

Right now, the reigning poet laureate is Cleatus Rattan of Cisco, and he seems a worthy enough choice as the parameters of the selection have it now, which are that the winner be "an outstanding and recognized poet, who is also a citizen of the state of Texas." Some of Rattan's work is very good, and he is indubitably recognized in poetry circles. But what if we put forth someone who is familiar to much more of the public? Someone whose poetry takes the form of song lyrics about life, love and death expressed in the plain-spoken Corsicana vernacular of his raising? Yes, just as much as the Sacramento Bee writer would love to see Merle Haggard as his state's poet laureate, I would love to see Texas crown Billy Joe Shaver. After all, as Texans we associate poetry with dreary Mondays in school. Music, on the other hand, is the heart of our Saturday nights, the medium by which we collectively lament our tragedies and celebrate our triumphs and just plain have a good time.

Just like Haggard, many of Shaver's themes are universal. His "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal" is one of the world's best songs about personal redemption, while "Live Forever" is a stunningly pretty statement on eternal life that nevertheless gives death its due. ("Nobody here will ever find me / But I will always be around / just like the songs I leave behind me / I'm gonna live forever now.")

And as with those of Haggard, other Shaver songs are more specific to his native state and the experiences of blue-collar Texans in the '50s and '60s. There's his tale of being a poor kid who had to "walk ten miles of train track to hear Hank Williams sing" in "Tramp on Your Street"; the picked-on hayseed's defiance of "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train" ("I wudn't born no yesterday / got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth grade education / ain't no need in y'all a-treatin' me this way"). And space doesn't permit me to discuss "That's Why the Man in Black Sings the Blues," "Oklahoma Wind," "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," "Honky Tonk Heroes," "Black Rose," "Good Christian Soldiers" and dozens more. Like the man himself has said, "I have so many good songs it's pitiful."

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