Among the Intellectualoids

Inaugural Poetasters

Inaugural poetry augers in our aesthetic sensibilities.

By 1.23.09

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I watched the inauguration in an overwhelmingly Republican room, yet I'd call the circumstances nothing but respectful. The interjections were few, and none of them particularly partisan, and most present accorded the proceedings close attention. All stayed for the full address and few left immediately when it was finished. The immediate subsequent comments involved criticism and praise in about equal measure.

The majority of the room didn't exit to face their sad Bush-less lives until words even more dread than "President Obama" were spoken: the announcement of an inaugural poem, by Elizabeth Alexander. Here the crowd dropped within 30 seconds from about 15 to 3. Before commissioning a Harper's piece on "Yet More Evidence of Republican Philistinism," ask yourself -- who with any experience of inaugural poetry could honestly blame them? And then ask yourself -- why do we have to suffer through these? The answer is simple: because of Democrats.

In the 48 years since a wizened Robert Frost stepped to the microphone at John Kennedy's inauguration, no Republican president has featured a poet at his inauguration. Anyone who sat through "Praise Song For the Day" on Tuesday has at least one reason to be thankful both for Republican rule and narrative efficiency. Democrats appear to have institutionalized the process. Carter didn't feature a poet at his inauguration, yet had one at his inaugural gala (and is now writing the damn stuff). Clinton, naturally, offered poets at each inauguration, and now Obama brings us "Praise Song for the Day" (as if the chorus of Angels wasn't loud enough already). And, Robert Frost aside, they all appear to have occasioned a lot of squirming in seats.

Sure, it's true that every inaugural poet operates at an implicit disadvantage, what with the inevitable comparisons to Robert Frost. Frost's case is sui generis -- first because, no poet since could possibly match his stature (RIP Public Intellectuals), and, second, because he read a very fine poem that was… not composed for the occasion. Whatever else went through Frost's head when writing blank, it clearly wasn't a thrill about those dashing young men of the New Frontier. (Elton John took note of Frost-style repurposing and you should too.)

Yet I'd suggest the real reason that inaugural poems fail is not because they're not written by Frost; it's because they're generally terrible. It's difficult to find a better example of modish left earth-mother verse than Maya Angelou's whirlwind tour of American history, from the Cenozoic era to the gay and the homeless, brimming over with condemnations of commerce along the way. Remember:

your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast

Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more

Additional inequities are not far away:

Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers -- desperate for gain,

And the persistent rock, the river, and the tree keep coming back, no matter how many times they've appeared before, just like these inaugural poets.

Miller Williams' 1997 poem appears better on re-reading, a musing on American memory and the transmission of its values, yet seems unmistakably hobbled by its associations with public policy. How can a line such as "who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not" fail to be cheapened by thoughts of school lunch programs and midnight basketball.

Elizabeth Alexander's poem cited familiar maxims "first do no harm, or take no more than you need." That's all par for the course. Most interesting, perhaps, for a state ceremony, is that the speech didn't mention America, or anything so demotic as a bordered polity. In fact, she seemed to call for an explicit transcendence, wondering "what if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national." Music, no doubt, to those who rejoiced to "the world has changed and we must change with it" sentiments in Obama's own address.

All of it warm porridge for a left-minded audience, of little interest to anyone else. And can anyone seriously argue that it elevates poetry? No, it's not an occasion to glorify art, but one to glorify government. Frost wrote in "Dedication," the rather "meta" (and critically panned) panegyric he actually intended to deliver at the Kennedy inauguration, before being hindered by wind and poor sight, that "Summoning artists to participate in the august occasions of the state seems something for us all to celebrate." I doubt that; it seems mainly something for government to celebrate -- it is in fact another way for it to celebrate itself. Frost played the courtier at Camelot, not the other way around.

Frost's words actually buoyed Kennedy; it's difficult to register the insignificance of the other poems, because, to a large extent, their creators abandoned any sparks of poetic vitality to write these paeans to a new President. Remember when Laura Bush attempted to arrange a White House symposium on poetry? Invited participants launched Poets Against the War and inspired the eventual cancellation of the event. Funny, yes (how many divisions do the poets have), but it was an effort that actually embraced the political possibilities of verse, instead of putting it at the service of a mere date and occasion. The dreary January 20 liberal platitudes are nothing like that; they left any possible dynamism somewhere back along Massachusetts Avenue.

Yet that would be too much to hope for in a Democratic administration. You can engage in pop political psychologizing -- is it yet another play for the locked-up sympathy of Writer's Almanac-listening northeastern freelancers? Get them now, before you buy the anthologies that will inevitably savage these very poems. And, look, it took me about thirty seconds to find a stellar example of this phenomenon, in a Salon piece about inaugural poetry (which is pretty good, but follow my point):

When I first heard a poet would read at Obama's inauguration, I was driving through Oakland, Calif., kid in the back seat, on my way to a cafe with Wi-Fi and a jungle gym. I had a poem to e-mail to a journal and a play date at noon. Melissa Block of NPR's "All Things Considered" began her story as I pulled into a parking spot, and I idled there for five minutes, passing raisins to my daughter, as poet Elizabeth Alexander spoke about the honor and her plans for the ceremony. How much better can things get? First I get a leader, now I get a poet? Not only a poet, but a poet I recognize and like? Is free daycare next?

Who knows! Maybe Adrienne Rich will run the day care?

It might seem a hopeful resurrection of the WPA Federal Writers Program Spirit, bringing government back into art, putting today's unemployed Cheevers and Hurstons to work in the national service. Yes. The reasons probably involve all of the above. Whatever the case, it's a strong argument for Republican rule. They don't do this.

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