An invitation from South Dakota’s new poet laureate: Tell me the what and the why of your life

EDITOR’S NOTE: This commentary is adapted with permission from a speech by Bruce Roseland, South Dakota’s new poet laureate, in September 2023 at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood.
For the next four years, I am the ambassador for poetry in South Dakota, and I take this seriously. I see much of living one’s life as art. Poetry is art through words.
I ranch and farm the same land as my great-grandfather. He didn’t write anything down, and I always wondered what it would be like to have him tell me about a day in his life. I’m sure he would’ve thought it was just ho-hum, no big deal. But that was back in the 1880s, and it would have been remarkable. 
That’s why I got started writing. I thought, maybe my ancestors didn’t tell their stories, but I could start recording my experiences for my grandchildren.
It ended up that my way of sharing stories is through free-verse poetry. I started recording my times and the stories I’ve been told by neighbors. 
So that’s the why — that’s what motivated me, because I wanted the future to know. I wanted my great-grandchildren to know my stories. At that time I didn’t have grandchildren, but they were my audience.
Poetry is storytelling. Poetry helps us think clearly. Poetry leads us to truth. Writing and sharing poetry are powerful ways to convey what we value, what’s in our lives, our passions.
By listening to the poetry of others, we find commonalities and step into their shoes, walk their mile, see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. Poetry does not have to be complicated, but it has to be honest. It has to come from the heart.
I encourage people from all walks of life to write. That is my goal as ambassador of poetry for the next four years: encourage people to write poetry and share it with each other. If you write and keep it to yourself, it’s just a diary. It takes courage to read and share your work publicly.
I want people to tell me the why, tell me about a day in your life. There’s no such thing as an unremarkable day in anyone’s life. That I firmly believe.
It’s hard to write a book. Writing a good poem is also hard to do, but I think it’s more achievable. A poem is something we can write in the between times of our life, 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there. Over a course of a lifetime, we end up recording what’s in our heart, what’s in our life, and we’re able to share that forward into the future, to give this gift of ourselves, our time and place. We’re allowing others to know us, to find what connects us. 
That’s what poetry does. It connects us. That is the great power of words as art — finding our connection and our common humanity. When we write a poem, we help the arc of history bend a little further toward the light.
o tell me the what, tell me the why of your life. I want to hear your stories.
Celebrate: We want to know
By Bruce Roseland
Sing to me of South Dakota, 
tell it like Carl Sandburg did about Chicago’s big shoulders.
Tell me about the workers
of infinite variety 
within this state.
How goes their day?
Tell me the what, 
tell me the why,
tell me about a day in your life.
Did Spring creep up on you 
one fine morning on cats’ feet as you beheld your first crocus
with the snow of
winter barely gone?
Who has not had a night
of the dark soul
that broke on through 
to the other side?
Did you light your candle
on both ends with a
flame oh so bright 
and now, years later,
are you ever more wise?
Have you climbed the 
former Harney’s Peak and
from that vantage point seen
five different states?
Standing on the dome, 
did you hear Black Elk speak?
Were the words whispered? 
Did they roar?
Tell me.
Tell me if Sioux Falls 
is the best little city,
on a summer Friday 
evening’s air,
as the young and the restless,
arm in arm, slow dance 
down the sculpture walk
on Philips Avenue.
Tell me about the endless prairie,
quarter sectioned, 
row cropped and drilled.
Tell me of short grass, 
cattle and small town bars,
blue skies and red tail hawks,
until you reach the distant Hills.
Then sing to me of Rapid City’s
Main Street Square popping
to sounds of music
mingling with the 
sunset colors rainbowing
from the pulsing water 
fountain’s spray.
Sing me all of South Dakota,
sing me your life,
for the good of poetry
is the celebrating, the telling
of the Golden Age of We.
All that is blessed, all that is struggle, tell me your heart.
Sing of yourself, 
sing South Dakota.
I want to hear the 
voices of angels,
I want to hear Walt Whitman’s barbaric yelps
singing through you.

The Pioneer Review

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Philip, SD 57567
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