And, Occasionally, Poetry

JSA Lowe

Ah, the dreaded occasional poem: feared by high-school bards, bane of poets laureate worldwide, secretly abhorred by all writers with patrons for a very, very, very long time. Graduations, inaugurations, coronations--occasions of state such as result in versified abominations, franken-poems which have little to do with art-making and everything to do (like royal portraiture) with just enough verisimilitude to make the flattery go down. (But not too much, of course; for "human kind / cannot bear very much reality.") When it comes to inaugurations, notes Randy Malamud for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "With the exception of Lyndon Johnson, every Democrat since John F. Kennedy--and no Republican--has had an inaugural poet." Why would this be? Does the staff of GOP presidents-elect worry that verse might compete sonically with Bible passages and prayers, could confuse spectators? For whatever reason, inaugural poems are associated only with incoming Democrats--most famously, of course, Robert Frost reading for JFK. Frost either really wasn't able to read his poem aloud (because, he complained, the light was too bright and his eyesight too poor), or pretended he couldn't, so that he could more dramatically declaim "The Gift Outright" from memory. (I know a poet who says for sure it was the latter.) Personally, I'd like to pretend that Whitman read at Lincoln's inauguration--preferably from the racier bits of Calamus--and that Miss Dickinson was sitting composedly in the audience, not too disgraced to enjoy herself. A fantasy inauguration to remember, with both parents of American poetry present. (Actually, my fantasy inauguration might include a 24-hour reading of Leaves of Grass in its entirety.) Certainly Whitman had much to say about his acquaintance with Lincoln, admiring yet not always exactly flattering: "He has a face like a Hoosier Michel Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion." And Lincoln, like Bill Clinton, loved Leaves of Grass, no doubt captured by its sweeping generosity and optimism of spirit, its encompassing breadth of vision, aiming to delineate some Platonic ideal of America. ("An image of my country," as Les Murray wrote yearningly of his own native Australia, "and would that it were more so.") Speaking of Clinton, who could forget Maya Angelou's 1993 turn as inaugural poet, with "On the Pulse of Morning"? She could not have stolen the show any more forcefully had she been wearing Aretha Franklin's infamous bow-hat. This ability is one of Clinton's singular gifts, a superpower to be used for good or ill: his skill at delightedly sharing the center of attention with those around him. For those six minutes, you almost forgot who was about to be inaugurated. President Angelou? She might have kept us out of certain unnamed conflicts--or at least composed topical poems about them, and recited those with powerful aplomb. Because the lady has uncompromising gravitas, whatever one thinks of her writing. Obama's two inaugural poets, first Elizabeth Alexander and now Richard Blanco, have been both praised as fine choices and then come under some scrutiny for their efforts, criticized as, respectively, prosy and sentimental. Malamud is even harsher about Blanco's contribution:
"One Today," in my opinion, falls flat. It reads like an early draft of what could be a good poem. I'm trying to restrain automatic prejudice against quickly made-to-order poetry, but I find the effort slapdash, and simply not very coherent. It's full of clichés: the din of honking cabs and buses, a songbird on a clothesline, the sun rising over the Rockies. Emotional clichés too½.[and] Blanco's imagery doesn't resonate as clever or creative.... "One Today" is a frenetic mishmash.
To be fair, it seems the inaugural poet is faced with mutually contradictory requirements: please the widest possible audience, who may never have encountered much poetry beyond Shel Silverstein or perhaps Carl Sandberg--while also offering something meatier for finicky consumers of the arts. It's an impossible task; no wonder poets dread it so. Those of us who write know the mingled terror and honor of being asked by family members to supply poetry for weddings and funerals and bar mitzvahs. It's like sketching a relative or friend: the odds that they will like their rendered image are not in the artist's favor. For a charity cause, I once wrote Valentine's Day poems on request; the rhyming ones were definitely the most popular, second only to those in which the first letter of each line was an acrostic for the beloved's name. I was very glad when February 14th finally rolled around and I could stop composing romantic odes to spouses I would never meet. Then there are the shadow inaugural poets--those not asked to play, who participate nonetheless. Yahoo, of all companies, commissioned half-a-dozen poets to compose in honor of Obama's second inauguration; the results are purely American (though one is in fact by Irish transplant Paul Muldoon), polyvocal and heteroglossic and distinctly uneven, from James Franco's underwhelmingly prosaic entry to a taut, mocking, savage, painfully on-point little Larkinesque verse by Michael Robbins, which poem Yahoo promptly refused to include on its site, allegedly "because of language, not topic"--by all means read it for yourself and see if you buy this dissembling justification. Personally I feel it should be as widely circulated as possible. "To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward" begins, barbed tongue concealed in flarfy cheek: This is a poem for President Drone. It was written by a camel. Can I borrow your phone? This is for President Mark Hamill. ... In the end, what may be most compelling about occasional poetry is the way in which some will take the occasion of the occasional poem as a chance to reflect on the state of poetry itself. Alexandra Petri wrote an already contested piece for the Washington Post blog; "Is poetry dead?" her title asks provocatively. Perhaps the clearest and most ringing response has been from Coldfront editor-in-chief John Deming, who wrote, concerning Petri's charge that poetry cannot affect change:
Your generalization does not specify what kind of "change" you mean. Literal political change? That's what you go on to suggest. Along with "revolution." Be serious. Congress can barely do that. Look what hell the president has to go through to do anything. But you attack American poets. You name none of them except the one you happened to see on TV, and you suggest his whole career is irrelevant to everyone because it is irrelevant to you. [½] A requirement of political change is too much to ask of any artist. Kurt Vonnegut said in 2003: "Every respectable artist in this country was against the war [in Vietnam]. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high."
Misquotations of Auden and Williams abound at such times, severed from their poetic contexts and dropped into badly written "trend" stories about poetry's slow fade from public and private life. It makes nothing happen; you cannot get the news from it; per Gwendolyn Brooks, it can't pay rent, feed a wife, or satisfy a man. These are specious non-arguments, but they sound doleful and convincing enough for a newspaper blogpost's general audience, unfortunately. And yet presidents, some of them anyway, persist in politely inviting poets to take up ten minutes of their inauguration ceremonies. Vestigial, as academics wear gowns with "ermine" made of rabbit fur? A gesture toward a time when public poetry mattered? Or an important acknowledgment that language, given by the gods, predates the formation of the polity, and that governance is in some way dependent on a kind of divinely inscribed mandate. Perhaps the land wasn't ours before we were the land's. In reality, the land has never been anyone's. But in any case, what occasionally remains after the occasion is actually, occasionally, poetry.

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