Minnesota Humanities Center

Rage and the Minnesota Poet Laureate

Posted April 30, 2021

A few days ago a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of killing George Floyd—a murder that feels simultaneously as if it happened yesterday and as if it happened years ago. Last summer, July 2020, we were in the grip of the Trump presidency, four years of daily shock, and the pandemic was settling in as a thing we’d have to face down together, as a community. Last summer was a summer of rage.

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Rage is related to rabies, a disease, not a dis-ease, but an unleashed energy, viral, berserking. Rage takes you out of your body.

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The night after I received my second Covid-19 vaccination, I dreamed I was inside a tree, part of it, me and the tree as one, and my arms reached up to the sun. I was surrounded by tree. I couldn’t tell where my body ended and the tree began, but I continued to feel myself as myself. It was not worrisome; it felt natural. Being part of a tree felt right.

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Rage is a word that doesn’t get used often, but it’s become a necessary part of our vocabulary. In a recent New York Times column, Charles M. Blow wrote about his rage at police killings of Black Americans. He calls his rage “an inextinguishable rage.” And then he writes: “I no longer even attempt to manage or direct my rage. I simply sit with it, face it like an adversary staring across a campfire, waiting to see how I am moved to act, but . . . not allowing society’s idea of decorum to proscribe it.”

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The opposite of rage is tranquility, is contemplation. And that leads me to William Wordsworth, whose words about tranquility every student of poetry has heard: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” To write about powerful feelings, we need the space (physical, temporal) from that overflowing instance.

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Poetry, when it is good, does not proscribe experience. It sits with experience and with the emotion of experience. Poetry does not protect the body. But poetry protects the heart. That is, poetry makes the heart safe. It is at the center, as heartwood is central, living, necessary.

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Joyce Sutphen, to whom we are saying goodbye as our state’s Poet Laureate this month, is a scholar of Shakespeare. And she’s as tranquil as a person can be. But if you ever have the chance to hear Joyce speak one of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the heat of a rapper’s rhythm, then you know something of overflow and power. She channels the voices of not-her, and the channeling is spontaneous, which is to say, it is freely and fully hers.

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But tranquility can be hard to come by. Or maybe it’s available only to some of us. I’m writing this from a place of privilege: I’m white, older, financially sound. I don’t leave my house wondering if I’ll be harassed or arrested or harmed.  I know that if I leave the house I’ll return home safe and sound. I’m not worried about tomorrow and what it will bring. Wordsworth validates me.

Still, I feel rage. At the top of CNN’s website as I type this sentence are stories about four different shootings in our nation. What is so sacred about guns that we must protect our access to them? Yesterday I went to the grocery store and saw five people not wearing masks. What is so sacred about our face that we won’t protect our neighbors?

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Tranquility is not cool. Coriolanus, in the Shakespeare play of the same name, says to his friends and relations who are egging him on: “Desire not t’allay My Rages and Reuenges, with your colder reasons.” Colder reason might allay the rage, but poets are not in the business of allaying—that is, poets don’t put on ice the heat of the recollected feeling. Nor do they make it reasonable. They bring that recollected emotion right into the present, so alive as to seem spontaneous, but without the teeth and blood of action.

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Rarely, if ever, has Joyce Sutphen written out of, or should I say, into rage. Rage is not in her range. Love, melancholy, remorse, wonder, admiration, irritation, these are the recollected and powerful feelings we find in her poetry. And how much we have needed these things.

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One day my father, who professed English at Gustavus, went into the department office to make copies. This happened more than two decades ago, possibly more than three decades ago, though I’m unsure of the timing. Anyway, he wanted to make copies, but the new hire in the department was busy at the machine. My dad had been on the committee that hired Joyce Sutphen, and they were relaxed together, and he wondered what she was copying. Lo and behold she was copying one of my poems to take to her class. My beaming father connected us through the post—no internet at that time—and that is how I met our outgoing state poet laureate.

I like many things about this story:

  • the blue light of the machine passing back and forth over my words, a weird upside-down blessing
  • the way poetry slips into the mundane
  • that it was the poem Joyce was going to share, not the poet; because I had taken my husband’s name, she couldn’t have known my relationship to her new senior colleague
  • that a poem is a tie that binds and a bond that tethers
  • that a poem is a revelation

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To sit with rage and not manage it or act on it in the heat of the moment is a brave and beautiful thing. Just the other day, a man who was enraged because a car in the lane to his left got a little closer than he would have preferred, acted on that rage and shot the passenger, a mother of six, in that too-close car. I don’t have to write other incidents here; you know them.

Perhaps we need, now, at this moment, a poet laureate who can bless us, who can tether us, who can bind us, and most of all, who can teach us to sit with rage.

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Trygve Throntveit Headshot
By: Trygve Throntveit

Trygve Throntveit is a Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Minnesota Humanities Center.