Henry Hart, the Mildred and J.B. Hickman professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary, who is an award–winning poet and literary biographer, was appointed last year as Virginia’s 2018-2020 Poet Laureate.
“Receiving the appointment was very special,” he said at that time in an interview with the Gazette. “I have worked hard since arriving at William and Mary in 1986 to promote poetry at the college and around Virginia. It isn’t an easy task, because most people don’t think of poetry as being very important.”
There was a time, he noted, when the poet — or bard — was considered the “great communicator.” He entertained and instructed the community by telling stories, recounting historical events and chanting song-like verses.
Now, as Poet Laureate, Hart does almost all those things.
“Well, as Virginia’s Poet Laureate I get asked to participate in many more literary events -- and in non-literary events, too -- than before I became Poet Laureate,” he said.
In fact, his assignments mushroomed.
Hart was asked to write a poem for new William and Mary President Katherine Rowe and read it at her inauguration on Charter Day. He has also written a poem celebrating Williamsburg’s history for next year’s July Fourth festivities in Colonial Williamsburg.
I asked Hart, what was the goal he set out to accomplish as Virginia’s Poet Laureate?
“I wanted to be a good ambassador for poetry in Virginia, and I also wanted to reconnect the Poetry Society of Virginia with the College of William and Mary, where it was established in 1923,” he said.
Hart explained the Poetry Society has had difficulty finding a convenient space and adequate funding for its annual poetry festival. Hart managed to secure Tucker Hall for the festival, and with the help of the College’s Development Department, he was able to raise substantial funds for the event. The Poetry Society’s main event of the year is now back on solid foundation.
“I achieved these goals by convincing people at William and Mary that Virginia’s Poetry Society is a worthwhile organization, that it reaches out to students and that it has many active members in the Williamsburg community,” he said.
I also asked Hart, what did he learn about how poetry is perceived, used and enjoyed by ordinary people?
“What I have learned from going into the community as Poet Laureate is that ordinary people often feel intimidated by poetry, but appreciate it if it’s presented in the right way,” he said. “Some poetry is very difficult, but much of it is accessible. I like to think of poetry as language that expresses ideas and feelings in artful, memorable ways. Most people can be entertained and enlightened by that sort of language.”
Writing poetry sometimes brings extra rewards. Hart recounted a story: When the new librarian of the Library of Congress was honored at the college’s Swem Library, Hart mentioned he had written a poem focusing on the Freedom Bell hanging at the First Baptist Church on Scotland Street.
Ron Monark, a professor at the Mason Business School who was involved in raising funds for the Freedom Bell, offered Hart a guided tour of the church and secured him permission to ring the Freedom Bell.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.