Ron Whitehead met the Dalai Lama in 1994, and he asked His Holiness to share with him a message that could be given to people of all ages.
From the Dalai Lama’s message, Whitehead, an Ohio County native who resides in Louisville, created the poem “Never Give Up:”
“Never give up / No matter what is going on / Never give up / Develop the heart / Too much energy in the world / Is spent developing the mind / Instead of the heart / Develop the heart / Be compassionate / Not just with your friends / But with everyone / Be compassionate / Work for peace / In your heart / And in the world / Work for peace / And I say again / Never give up / No matter what is going on around you / Never give up.”
Whitehead has shared that poem with people all over the world since then. It’s a message he considers a beautiful gift, and one that will be part of his mission as the newly-named National Beat Poet Laureate USA.
The National Beat Poet Laureates are declared and sponsored by the National Beat Poetry Foundation, which preserves the writings of the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation was a literary movement that developed in the 1940s and included notable writers and artists like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg.
According to its website, the National Beat Poet Foundation chooses Beat Poet Laureates from recommendations emailed. An anonymous seven-member committee then reviews nominees and votes.
“This is a gift,” Whitehead said. “It’s a treasure beyond measure to be named U.S. National Beat Poet Laureate.”
He said his goal has always been to encourage others to find their own, original voice in whatever they choose to do, much like beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg.
“If you don’t have a dream, look for it, find it out,” he said. “Then once you realize what your dream is, build a bridge from where you are to where you want to be by taking one step at a time.”
Whitehead is a poet, writer, publisher, professor, scholar and activist who has authored 24 books and recorded 34 albums, including the poetry book “blistered asphalt on dixie highway: Kentucky Basketball is Poetry in Motion,” which won the Finishing Line Press 2015 open chapbook competition. He also authored “MAMA: a poet’s heart in a Kentucky Girl” in 2015 with his mother, Greta Render Whitehead.
In 2018, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer presented Ron Whitehead with a Lifetime Achievement for Work in The Arts Award, and in 2019 he was named the Kentucky Beat Poet Laureate. He co-founded the Chief of Poetics for Gonzofest Louisville and has produced thousands of events, including 24-, 48-, 72-, and 90-hour nonstop music and poetry Insomniacthons in Europe and the USA.
As the U.S. National Beat Poet Laureate, Whitehead said he will encourage others to never give up. Part of his mission in this capacity will also be to uplift and inspire, to comfort and heal, and to awaken everyone to the fact that there is a nonstop river of creative fire flowing through us, he said.
No matter what happens in society, individuals must always fight for the right to be themselves, he said.
“I encourage people to find their own original voice as people,” he said.
Whitehead is also the subject of a documentary about his life that is slated to be released in the near future, pending negotiations with distributors. “Outlaw Poet: The Legend of Ron Whitehead,” which was filmed and created over a 10-year period, tells the story of Whitehead’s life. It is directed by Clayton L. Luce and Nick P. Storm.
Growing up in Ohio County, Whitehead can recall many beautiful — and terrible — experiences. He graduated from Ohio County High School in 1968 at 17. In 1973, he returned to participate in the Beaver Dam rocking chair marathon, during which he rocked for 89 hours and 55 minutes. He later wrote a book titled “Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon.”
When he received word about being inducted into the Ohio County High School Wall of Fame in 2004, Whitehead said he thought it was a prank phone call.
“I had total mixed feelings,” he said. “I was a total failure. I thought I was a juvenile delinquent. I told the audience I was surprised.”
Whitehead has been all over the world, and he loved his roots.
“Wherever I travel, I preach the Kentucky gospel,” Whitehead said. “I’m proud of being a hillbilly from the state of Kentucky.”
Bobbie Hayse, email@example.com, 270-691-7315