Laureate Says Job's Great, but Public Not Well Versed in Poetry

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TALLAHASSEE -- At least one of former Gov. Bob Graham's appointees is still going strong after 20 years.

Edmund Skellings of Dania was named Florida's poet laureate in 1980 and holds that title to this day. There are no term limits for poet laureates; some serve for life.

"Jeb Bush says I have the best title in the state and he's right," Skellings said in a recent interview. "I don't have to do anything. On the other hand, he's well paid and I'm not."

In fact, Skellings receives no pay for the distinction.

A man who deals in words, Skellings has some strong ones when asked about the state of poetry today.

"Pretty bad," was his blunt assessment.

"I don't think the public is interested in poetry," he said. "The public is busy."

Skellings is just the third person to serve as Florida's poet laureate. The first was Franklin N. Wood, who was appointed in 1929. The second was Vivian Laramore Rader of Miami, who served from 1931 until her death in 1973.

The state muddled through without a laureate until Graham got around to appointing Skellings seven years later.

Poet laureates are a tradition in Great Britain, where Sir William Davenant was first appointed in 1638, and they are expected to write poems for special events.

Such luminaries as William Wordsworth and John Masefield have held the post. Alfred Lord Tennyson served for 42 years.

But the idea of a national poet laureate is relatively new in the United States. Robert Penn Warren became the country's first poet laureate in 1986 and served only for a year, as have most of his successors.

Skellings, now 68, was recommended for the Florida position by an out-of-state panel that sifted through 400 nominations.

Although he has published several volumes of poetry, his day job is directing a supercomputer center in Fort Lauderdale that creates computer animations.

"We're as good as Disney," Skellings asserted.

Whether Florida needs a poet laureate is something about which even poets disagree.

William Slaughter, a University of North Florida English professor who operates a poetry Web site called Mudlark, questioned the need for the title.

"I don't favor the idea of a poet laureate at all," Slaughter said, suggesting that singling out one person to represent all of the state's poets could be more harmful than helpful.

If there is to be a laureate, Slaughter said, it should be someone of the towering stature of a Robert Frost or, failing that, someone who has devoted his or her life to the promotion of poetry in the state. …