After the publication of one of his many books, former poet laureate of Missouri Walter Bargen was surprised to hear readers describe the work as "witty."
"And here I was thinking this is a really tragic book," Bargen said. "So I had to reread it. With that in mind, I decided, yes, they are correct — it's witty. Perhaps not exactly funny but definitely witty."
At a poetry reading at Callaway County Public Library on Thursday evening, Bargen decided to lean into the humor as he shared a selection of some of his wittiest poems from his career with the crowd.
After his first poem, which described an explosively pink Sheryl Crow concert, Bargen took off his pink shirt to reveal a second shirt underneath. He followed the quick wardrobe change with a piece describing a camping trip interrupted by a herd of cows.
"No, there is not a third shirt, this is all you're going to get," Bargen joked as he introduced the third poem of the night. "Although I have thought about doing two shirts and a blouse."
Quick subject changes continued through the night, which featured topical poems with an emphasis on the environment and winter-focused works.
"This poem is called 'House of Turtle,'" Bargen said of one poem. "But what I have in mind here is what's happening in Australia. They have estimated that a billion wild animals have died. I mean, that's just astounding. And then they hold up that 26 humans have died. Is there something wrong with this equation? Don't we understand that we're all on this planet, taking this journey together?"
Other poems delved into eerie calls from strangers, a trip to a women's prison, cow mutilations and a tornado ripping through a church parking lot.
"Walter is quite flexible in what he calls poetry," attendee Lois Long said.
Bargen, a narrative poet, incorporates storytelling into his work.
"I think what I learned about writing fairly early on was to try not to write about myself," Bargen said, though many of the poems read Thursday were inspired by real-life conversations.
Long said, as an advocate for caregivers of persons with dementia, Bargen's work inspired by his mother's dementia resonated most with her.
"What he captures from the life that he's familiar with speaks quite well to a universal truth," Long said.
This year, Bargen has visited each branch of the Daniel Boone Regional Library system. Nine people came to the event in Fulton.
Bill and Vickie Randall, self-identified "recovering English majors," learned about the reading on Facebook.
"It makes me wish more people weren't afraid to come and listen because you realize it's not as scary as you think," Bill Randall said of the event.
Both agreed they enjoyed hearing the poetry read aloud.
"I find it much easier to listen to someone read poetry than to read it myself," Vickie Randall said.
All of Bargen's books are available to check out at the library.