Poets Laureate Come Under Fire

Some of the nation's most celebrated poets, from Robert Frost to Maya Angelou, are among those who have been distinguished as poets laureate.

But lately, the kind of ink a few states' honored poets have been getting is anything but art.

Quincy Troupe, California's first official poet laureate, relinquished the title this month when it was discovered that he lied about being a college graduate. And New Jersey's state poet, Amiri Baraka, is in trouble over a poem suggesting Israelis were tipped off about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Baraka's poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," he wrote: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?"

The verses refer to an oft-repeated conspiracy theory circulated in the Muslim world that maintained thousands of Israelis and other Jews were told in advance of the attacks. In fact, hundreds of Jews were among those killed that day.

Amid a flurry of outrage and charges of anti-Semitism following Baraka's remarks, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey demanded the poet both apologize and step down. State lawmakers also introduced legislation to clear the way for Baraka's ouster.

But Baraka, who said the meaning of his words had been distorted, refused to resign, and vowed to fight any move to remove him.

"It is a poem that aims to probe and disturb, but there is not any evidence of anti-Semitism," Baraka told The Associated Press.

And because Baraka has been appointed to the poet laureate position by an independent committee, McGreevey doesn't have the power to force his resignation.

Satirist and game show host Ben Stein, who has been following the cases of both Troupe and Baraka, said poets are traditionally muckrakers.

"Poets are notoriously mad and notorious troublemakers, and these two are no exception," he said.

But implying that Jews were warned to stay away from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 is inexcusable, said Stein.

"For a poet laureate to just be out there spouting venom and lies, that's not the function of a poet laureate. I guess you would do it if you were the poet laureate of Nazi Germany."

Others supported Baraka.

"(He) has succeeded in making poetry a public issue in perhaps the only way he could -- by writing something controversial," Laura McCullough and Michael Broek wrote in an editorial in the Newark Star Ledger. "At least in this, his tenure has already been successful."

While the editorial dismissed Baraka's conspiracy theory as "absurd," it also condemned those who called for his removal.

"What Baraka wrote was obviously near slander, it was idiotic," Professor Liam Rector, who teaches poetry at Bennington College, told Fox News. "But once you appoint someone, you can't go around censoring them for everything they say."

The tradition of poet laureates goes back to the 17th Century, when King James I of England created the title for someone who would write and read poetry for royal occasions.

Today, the U.S. has a poet laureate, as do 40 states. The general mission is to elevate the status of poetry in the minds of the American public.

"With poetry and with the post of poet laureate, we can have an ambassador out there in classrooms, in boardrooms, sharing the love of literacy and the love of learning," said Adam Gottlieb of the California Arts Council.

But civic arts advocates sometimes find it a struggle to keep the role relevant. And incidents like those in California and New Jersey aren't helping.

While most poets laureate aren't paid much in public money, critics insist even their small stipends could be put to better use. Baraka is paid $10,000 for his yearlong position -- which to many is a waste of taxpayer money.