04/16/2009 10:43 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lo! It's National Poetry Month

With April being National Poetry Month, I approach the season with anticipation and dread.

The dread, I must admit in full disclosure, comes from my bitterness at being overlooked at having been named California's Poet Laureate three years ago. I felt I had a pretty good chance of getting the position, since the job had become available without any offer of compensation.

"As you know, this is a very tight fiscal year," said Terri Carbaugh, spokesman for the governor. "Quite possibly, a poet laureate may step up to the plate and volunteer their time. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

It would indeed, since I was sure there would be few applicants! And so I dashed off an ode of a great many stanzas, certain of getting accepted.

I'm applying to be poet laureate
Though I'm not sure what the job's faureate.
My rhymes aren't deep
But they're fast and they're cheap!
Which is why I've not been shown the daureate.

Alas, 'twas not to be. (The full poem and tale were part of an earlier Huffington Post. []) And O! the bitter pill it was. My rejection stirred up much controversy in poetry journals 'cross the rich and verdant land. Many of those wounds have yet to heal, as you can well-imagine. I won't name any names. Poetry is a brutal game, and not for the faint of heart.

Anyway, what's passed is in the past, at least for the moment, and the story best left for another day. Poets have thin skins and longer grudges than a religious zealot.

But that's not the point here. No, say I. With this being National Poetry Month, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to bring to the public's attention one of the nation's great lost poets, the brilliant Herb Vandecker.

For many decades, Mr. Vandecker worked in deep obscurity, burdened (like many artists) by a public that didn't yet understand his work and which believed him to be fictional. For most poets, these two hurdles would have been enough to stop them, but not Herb Vandecker. He kept writing on and on - and on and on and on and on - regardless of public acclaim, awareness, or ever having been seen. It wasn't until the happy day I came upon his letters and poems in a long-lost archive and got them published in North Dakota's prestigious quarterly gazette, Poetry Now!, that this once-ignored poet was brought to long-overdue attention. Though many still doubted his existence, including most relatives of one branch of the Vandecker family, it only served to build curiosity which increased the myth his life had become.

His confrontational letters with Ezra Pound remain classics of the form, and can bring defenders of each gentlemen to blows. Even today, from the passage of half a century, one can still feel the passion of fire shooting out from Vandecker's accomplished fingers.

My dear Mr. Ounce,

You may be a "Pound" to others, but to me you overstate the weight of your worth. I am in receipt of your note of 23 August and wonder if you are in receipt of your senses. You did indeed subvert the meaning of my poem, "Lo! Comes a Dream," by completely misinterpreting the proper tense of the verb form for "envisage." Further, and you have got my hackles up with this (try not to defend yourself, sir), you have again attempted to cause me loss. To think that I owe you an additional $2 and 50-cents from lunch is to live in a flight of fancy, far beyond your poetic abilities. I had the chicken salad and an iced tea - total. Total! It was you, sir, who ordered the cheese plate appetizer for two - not I, sir. I had none, sir, nor will I pay a penny for it. Sir.

Herb Vandecker

But, of course, it was his poetry itself that most highly brought this fictional genius to his new found fame. And 'twas his now-renowned poem, "Whither the Trees," that accomplished that happy feat. And so, we will end our paean to National Poetry Month - and praise of this overlooked virtuoso of the American soul - with that joyful verse.

"Whither the Trees?"
Herb Vandecker

Whither the trees
I ask,
And questions like these
Are the task
I give myself and others,
My sisters and brothers,
To answer
If they can, sir.
O! Here's what I'll do --
I'll give you a clue:
For the richest and poorest,
The trees are somewhere in the forest.

(c) Herb Vandecker, 1957.
From the collection "'The Land of All' and other poems."