Sunday Apr 14

hoppenthaler In the wake of Richard Blanco's recitation of the poem he was asked to write as part of Barack Obama's second presidential inauguration, any reasonable reader or practitioner of contemporary poetry ought to have expected the immediate negativity and evisceration of Blanco's effort. Blanco himself should have, and I'm sure he did. It comes with the territory. It comes with the inherent near-impossibility of writing a good (never mind great) "occasional" poem.

It comes, too, with the flawed impression that many of those who do not read or write poetry hold true for the work of poets; that is, because poetry tends to be short and, to untrained eyes, difficult or incomprehensible, it must have been thrown together quickly, without a great deal of thought or effort, that it lacks the gravitas of the weightier genres. These observers are untrained, I might add, largely because the secondary school curriculum in the United States so little values poetry; poetry is mostly seen as of little value or, even, as dangerous, as contrary to the carefully-shaped American story politicians seek to put forth as the "truth." Mysterious, high brow, radical. As Randy Malamud points out in his recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Hazards of Inaugural Poetry," "With the exception of Lyndon Johnson, every Democrat since John F. Kennedy—and no Republican—has had an inaugural poet." Need I comment? In academic circles, even, among peers and highly educated administrators and colleagues who ought to know better, the presence of poetry in the academy is an opportunity to voice resentment and instigate turf wars. It is not seen as valid, as what it is, akin to science in its desire to better understand the world in which we live.

The fact is, of course, that literary poets tend to work long and hard on a poem. As is the case with any artist, a good deal of reflection (and, frequently, research) precedes the actual act of writing a poem's first draft. Thereafter, typically, draft after draft is carefully revised as the artist struggles with the tension between form and content, as well as with the constant battle against the ineffable. Malamud reveals that "Last month [Blanco] was asked to write and submit three possible poems to Obama's inaugural committee, and "One Today" was their overwhelming choice."

Let me repeat that: Blanco was asked to write not one poem, but three in the space of a month, and these were then vetted by a panel that presumably was less interested in the poem's aesthetic value as it was in its political content. Again, non-poets seem to presume that a poet can knock off a poem in no time at all; it doesn't seem very hard. Throw some obviously rhymed, end-stopped lines together and Et voilà ! This is hardly the case as many poets go months without finding that elusive inspiration we've come to call the muse. Forcing a poem's birth is a bad idea. It almost always leads to bad poems. Blanco's charge was to write three poems in a month, whether or not he was artistically inspired to do so. And let's not forget the hoopla, the calls and emails from friends and well-wishers, everyday responsibilities, and anxiety. Beyond these obstacles, the inaugural poem must be understandable to a vast and varied public, must be expansive and celebratory in the Whitmanic tradition, must be wholesome, and must satisfy the specific desire of the aforementioned panel. In other words, Blanco was faced with an assignment for which he was set up to fail.

Of course, as so many critics have shrieked these past few weeks, Blanco's poem is, in fact, largely a failure when judged by the rigorous standards we ought to place upon the literary poem; however, let's not lose sight of the fact that Blanco was not necessarily trying to write a literary poem and, even if he was, it certainly can't be fair of us to judge the poem by the criteria we would normally bring to bear upon a serious poem written by a highly-trained poet. And Blanco is, of course, highly-trained and, if examined with a clear eye, "One Today" does reveal wonderful moments.

One need only have a look at the attempts of those inaugural poets who preceded Blanco to see what I claim about these poems is so. Robert Frost, who became our first inaugural poet when he (Conservative though he was) read his nonce sonnet "The Gift Outright" (Kennedy's choice) to commemorate John F. Kennedy's presidency. There is a tale that goes along with this fact. Frost had intended to read a new, quickly-written, piece, "Dedication," as a preface to "The Gift Outright." However, as the story goes, because of the bright sunshine, and because it was handwritten on a sheet of paper, his aged eyes couldn't make out the words, and so he recited "The Gift Outright" by heart. In that moment, he was probably destined to have read the finest (though the poem is not nearly Frost's finest poem) inaugural poem in history. It was not a poem force-written for the occasion, unlike "Dedication, which is a pretty awful poem of the sort most casual listeners would have recognized as "poetry," insistently end-rhymed, full of historical data, and rife with artless platitudes like, "God nodded his approval of us as good" and "It is no miracle our mood is high / Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs." Perhaps he really didn't read that poem because, when the zero hour came, he thought better of it.

Although James Dickey read a poem at a post-inaugural event for Jimmy Carter, the next actual inaugural poet was Maya Angelou in 1993. She seemed a logical choice for Bill Clinton as she is, arguably—other than maybe Billy Collins—our most publically recognized "poet." The fact is, though, that most literary poets think little of Angelou's poetic efforts, finding them full of clichés, vague generalities, and sodden language, laudable as her prose might be. Her inaugural effort, "On the Pulse of Morning," reveals these faults quite readily. For his second inauguration, Clinton chose fellow-Arkansan Miller Williams (perhaps better known these days as singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams' dad). His "Of History and Hope" is the best of the inaugural poems (excepting "The Gift Outright"), as it more ably attends to the values of contemporary literary expectations of a poem and rarely allows itself to seem excessive or unnaturally excitable. Even at this, however, it is not Williams' best work.

Obama's first inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, wrote a poem with an honest and clear title, "Praise Song for the Day," and—following the prerequisites of the bardic, African-American tradition of the praise song—does what it sets out to do, laud and get at the essence of the progressive American experience. Again, however, as a literary poem, "Praise Song for the Day" falls short, delivering clear but uninteresting lines like, "I know there's something better down the road. / We need to find a place where we are safe. / We walk into that which we cannot see."

The hysterical reactions to Richard Blanco's "One Today" are both ridiculous and unfounded, as is the undue praise being heaped upon the poem in response. It is what it is, what it was intended to be, a relatively plain-spoken piece constructed to act as a pep talk to those who celebrate Obama's re-election, nothing more. The most vitriolic reactions to the piece come from conservative bloggers and the dull-witted who have, historically, seen fit to claim that poetry is of no value (makes nothing happen). Richard Blanco, however fine a poet he may or may not be, has to be judged on his body of art, not on a produced-on-demand piece of political propaganda. He may as well have walked up to the microphone with a target on his forehead, so I laud him for even agreeing to place himself so dangerously in that chilly limelight. And let us not forget that the value of poetry has to do with understanding the other, with empathy, with complicating the heavily-edited, party-line history the politicians of each era shape to their own ends and would shove down our throats as something good to eat, something that sustains. That nonsense, that crime, is one that those of us who need poetry, who live it, dismiss. the wake of Richard Blanco’s recitation of the poem he was asked to write as part of Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration, any reasonable reader or practitioner of contemporary poetry ought to have expected the immediate negativity and the evisceration of Blanco’s effort. Blanco himself should have, and I’m sure he did. It comes with the territory. It comes with the inherent near-impossibility of writing a good (never mind great) “occasional” poem.