Years from now they will wonder how it all started -- why there are odes on the opening of a new Beltway off ramp, epics chronicling the passage of House appropriations bills, haiku dedicated to the purchase of a fax machine.
And a historian will say: Howard Nemerov. He did it.
Nemerov, who recently stepped down as the nation's third poet laureate, yesterday read his specially commissioned poem "Soundings" at the dedication of an addition to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) headquarters in Rockville. The days when a simple ribbon-cutting was sufficient are over.
It is the kind of event that sends a communal cringe through the small universe of American state and national poets laureate. Write poetry on demand? Think of all those wretched creations celebrating the queen's horse or the prime minister's 72nd birthday! How anachronistic! How vaguely embarrassing! The first laureate, Robert Penn Warren, set the tone by announcing he was not interested in "writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan."
But Nemerov has no such qualms, at least not in the abstract (apparently the Reagans have not yet approached him with a request). A wry man who delights in quietly repudiating the conventional wisdom, he has written poems on the 200th anniversary of Congress and the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.
"After 50 years of writing anything you damn please as it comes to you, it's wonderful to be set a subject, set a theme," the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet said. "So I was pleased to try, and I think I done okay."
The people at ASHA seemed to agree. They printed an elegant commemorative copy of the four-part poem for their employees and were delighted by Nemerov's reading of his creation.
"We wanted him to express in poetry some ideas of his about connections among humankind through speech, and we asked him to do it and were delighted when he accepted," said ASHA President Roy A. Koenigsknecht, a speech-language pathologist who is graduate school dean at Ohio State University.
The assignment came with an honorarium, but Koenigsknecht said he would "prefer" not to reveal just how much. " 'Not enough' is the answer, I suppose," he said.
The association, which has a membership of 62,000 speech-language pathologists and audiologists, contacted Nemerov in the spring after the board decided the occasion of the dedication should be expanded into a celebratory year that would include an essay contest, an exhibit by artists with disabilities and -- if possible -- a commemorative poem.
The commission seemed particularly apt, Nemerov said, because "I'm half deaf, so why shouldn't I write a poem for the deaf?"
Nemerov said he wrote three special commissions during his first year as laureate, but "the second year everyone lost interest, so I didn't get asked to do anything."
He somehow managed to keep himself busy anyway. Then came ASHA's request. "You just sit around thinking, and you think about it during your morning walk, and when it comes, it comes rapidly and you put it together.
"If the idea doesn't come, you don't do it." But it did.
"Soundings" begins with the image of the poet watching a TV with the sound turned off and then follows his late-night mental wanderings among images of sound, communication and struggle.
Barbara Goldberg, ASHA magazine news editor and a poet herself, contacted Nemerov initially and was particularly gratified to see poetry valued as an act of celebration and commemoration. "There's no reason poetry couldn't be brought into this kind of thing -- especially for an association that deals with communication," she said. "But I think it could work wherever."
So prepare yourself. Coming soon: the State of the Union delivered in sonnet form.
"Soundings," from Section IV I went over to the window to see if snow
Was falling (no), turned off the set and so
Upstairs to bed with, first, a memory
Of that miracle of the high school physics class,
The oscilloscope, that translated sound to sight,
And of the musical score, that for the instructed
Did the same thing, but this time in reverse.
There came these thoughts, residues of the dream
or canonical variations on its theme:
"The lightning writes the lines against the night
For thunder the loud buffoon to bellow aloud."
"It is the still and sky-reflecting pool
Whose gravity powers the chattering waterfall."
And last: "The essential human statement is
'I give you my word.' This is the bottom line."