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Why I Find Occasional Poems Tricky

by Celisa Steele on December 4, 2013

Carrboro Town SealAs Carrboro poet laureate, I was invited to read a poem last night at the swearing-in ceremony of Carrboro’s new mayor, Lydia Lavelle, and re-elected alderpersons Jacquelyn Gist, Randee Haven-O’Donnell, and Sammy Slade at Carrboro Town Hall.

It was also suggested that I might write a poem for the occasion. And, while writing something for the event intimidated me, I did write my first occasional poem for the swearing-in.

Before I share the poem, let me comment on why I felt intimidated. As Wordsworth is oft (over?) quoted as saying, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Therein, for me, is the difficulty of the occasional poem—the poet has to anticipate the powerful feelings. The poet doesn’t get to recollect them in tranquility. She’s ideally part of creating the powerful feelings. And, by and large, I do draw on past events that are emotionally interesting and significant to me when I write. So undertaking an occasional poem flipped my usual writing process on its head. That and the strict deadline daunted me.

While I may envy them as poets, I certainly don’t envy Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco the task they each undertook to write a poem for a presidential inauguration. But working on my own occasional poem did give me new appreciation of what each managed to accomplish.

In any case, I feel lucky to live in a town like Carrboro has created and supported the position of a poet laureate and whose mayor values words enough to request an occasional poem.

So here it is, my first occasional poem.

Swearing-In Ceremony

by Celisa Steele

Swear comes from Middle English sweren
and may be akin to the Old Church
Slavic svarŭ, meaning to quarrel.

It doesn’t matter—although it may
help, when quarrels arise, to recall
the Slavic: what you do is ancient,

rooted in words you speak now. Neither
is history worth much tonight, whose
footsteps you follow irrelevant,

dry as etymology. Even
what you say tonight doesn’t matter.
Saying a thing never made it so

as every poet knows. Words are weak
and never change a world. But say them
still—because they should be, must be said

as all poets also know. Then go
do the work, stack action on action,
stone on stone, build the thing sturdy and strong.

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