What the Hell Has Happened to Inaugural Poetry?

Richard Blanco copy

The worst possible thing that could happen to poetry has just happened again: a presidential inauguration.

Poetic rabble-rousers such as those housed in M.F.A. programs, high school literature teacher conventions in beige-y hotel conference rooms, and a few suburban Caribou Coffee open mic nights were probably as dismayed as I was Monday. If you were looking to return poetry from the brink of obscurity by pointing once-and-for-all to a contemporary, stirring display of prosodical power, you were sorely disappointed by all-around nice guy/memoirist/national poet laureate Richard Blanco, who basically got up and read some children’s book lines about unity and pencil-colored busses.

Once again, poetry was the time-for-a-piss-break-it’s-a-monster-ballad equivalent for the U.S. Presidential Inauguration. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Maya Angelou said this in 1993 at President Clinton’s inaugural poem: “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.”

Ummm, yes.

Yes, those lines (a fairly straightforward, albeit elegant and sorta-bold statement to make in a capitalistic/militaristic empire) actually made it onto national television. In 1961, when the about-to-croak Robert Frost was asked to deliver a poem for President Kennedy’s inauguration, the old bard from Bread Loaf cooked up a real bore. But when the sun reflecting off the snow blocked his vision of the paper at the podium, he instead recited from memory a real jinjoistic, but stirring knock-out from 1942 called “The Gift Outright.” It includes this line: “The land was ours before we were the land’s/ She was ours before we would become her people.”

Ummm, double yes.

Which brings us back to the two most recent inaugural’s attempts at poetry. First off, cheers to Obama for foisting poetry out into our face—even though the old form’s protégé and now usurper, hip hop, was resting just behind the walls (where Jay-Z sat with his wife the Lip-Syncher-in-Chief). There have actually only been five poets to speak at inaugurations, but the most recent two are totally in the category of also-ran. Four years ago, Elizabeth Alexander read a poem that sounded more like a flight attendant’s speech (“Someone is trying to make some music somewhere”) and, curiously, began a trend of referencing pencils in inauguration poems (“Take out your pencils. Begin.”). This year, aside from a moving, albeit not uncouth line about Newtown, his grocery-bagging mother, and that bit about hope being a constellation we should map or whatever, Blanco sent the audience to the porta-Johns.

And not just because video cameras caught House Majority Whip Eric Cantor staring in bewilderment throughout the address (Cantor, in addition to being an asshole, is on record for skipping the president’s second primetime television address so he could see Britney Spears’ Circus  tour). But, Blanco’s poem was like Bono on an off day. Like post-Achtung Baby, Bono. A heavy oaring of monosyllabic truisms (“All of us as vital as the one light we move through”) mixed with undaunted sentimentality (“My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors”). It felt like something I’d download with pictures on my iPhone to put a kid to sleep tonight to. And that sun, that sun is for all of us, and so is the moon. We’re one. Made from many.

Basically, DO go gentle into that good Porta-John restless crowds, honestly please.

Blanco reaffirmed that in 2013 poetry has no purpose in American society other than to cobble together a few folksy images about playing nicely, supporting each other, and never giving up. Obviously I don’t agree this is poetry’s limitation. Obviously, I wish the President would’ve chosen anyone else: Ted Kooser, Junot Diaz, or Phillip Levine, all poets with “mid America” vibes that also lack YouTube videos attached to their names excoriating the Tea Party or corporate America or Rush Limbaugh or white people (GOD FORBID!).

But, poetry took a hit this week, people. Tuesday night at a bar in my town, our local poet laureate cornered me and leveled our generation for lacking any literary balls. I told him about my students struggling through Emerson’s “On Self-Reliance,” and he fumed, saying that in the mid-19th Century, “Emerson was a rock star! He went from town to town and people paid to see him—not even educated people, just regular Joes! You can tell your fucking students THAT!” He then went on a tear about the “Googlization” of millennials, a treatise slightly undermined when he backed up his claim with reference to a YouTube video. He then educated me on how handwriting got done right in the 18th Century, which re-awoke me to the fact he was crazy and should not win.

But, I’m worried. I’m worried for poetry that he might be right. That it’s been rendered—for whatever reason, capitalism, shorter attention spans, increasingly thriftiness in our language, the burgeoning STEM education movement in America—a glorified opportunity for cheesy, sentimental Hallmark bullshit to be spewed into American homes without any intellectual teeth. Yes the presidential inauguration is a ceremony meant for something grandiose and sparkly and heart-warming. But can’t our ceremonies be mixed with a little more ambiguity, challenging allusions, thought-sparking insights?

Aristotle says poetry is “a more philosophical and a higher thing than history.” But, if I’ve been disappointed at all about Obama’s presidency, I honestly think it starts with the anticlimactic inaugural poets. Please, next time, give me a reason to hate Eric Cantor even more for staring mindlessly and dumbly at the poet laureate. Not reason for bipartisan agreement.

- Dunstan McGill


Photo by Nico Tucci, courtesy Richard Blanco