Next week, as we all know, Elizabeth Alexander (left) will read a poem composed for the occasion at the inauguration of Barack Obama. The welcome mat is being extended by communities beyond the sphere of constant poetry-readers. George W. Bush disdained the presence of a poet at his two inaugurations, and in fact there now seems to be a party split as to the desirability of having a poet share the limelight with the pastor and the new president. Republicans say no, in thunder, and Democrats gladly schedule a few minutes of verse as part of the ceremony. Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Miller Williams have spent time at the podium, thanks to the sponsorship of center-left presidents-elect. This situation seems rather odd, since conservatives historically have respected the literary, and more generally the cultural, tradition. Who is more conservative than a poet—he or she who seeks to conserve or preserve the riches of the English language and the wisdom of the ages? Modern poets were more politically conservative than not, as with Pound, Eliot, Frost, Tate, and Stevens, though the term is clearly insufficient for the complexity of their poetic temperaments, to say nothing of figures like D. H. Lawrence (an honorary American), William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Alexander is an excellent choice because she carries forward what I think of as the great tradition of public poetry by African American authors exemplified most ambitiously by Robert Hayden(right). That is, she has worked hard to construct a pantheon of black citizens and artists, and victims, in order to write the African American person into the complex narrative of American history. Hayden worked programmatically to place the lives of figures like Phillis Wheately, Nat Turner, Cinquez (Alexander has also written a long poem featuring the Amistad), Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Paul Robeson, Tiger Flowers, Bessie Smith, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and others, into the literary record. (He was completing a poem about Josephine Baker when he died.) His agenda evokes the statues of presidents and generals and suchlike that populated most communities in the nation until recently. Nobody seems to miss these statues, except Tom Wolfe who has argued for them in several essays, but we would certainly miss the presence of neglected public figures in poems if writers like Alexander, and Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Rita Dove, Sam Cornish, A. Van Jordan, and many others, stopped writing them.
Once it was a culture war, or perhaps a race war, as to which people were to be celebrated. Don L. Lee addressed white readers in the 1960s in what he called a nationhood poem, “u take artur rubenstein over thelonious monk . . .u take robert bly over imamu baraka . . . u take picasso over charles white . . .” Hayden made no such binary oppositions in his poems and criticism, which earned him the enmity of poets like Lee (now Haki R. Madhubuti), nor does Alexander, though in her signature poem “Today’s News,” she imagines the host of the old TV program This Is Your Life as an apparition with a message: “Ralph Edwards comes into the bedroom and says, ‘Elizabeth / this is your life. Get up and look for color, / look for color everywhere.’” A self-confessed “child of Gwendolyn Brooks and Walt Whitman,” in her poem “Stravinsky in L.A.” Alexander has the composer looking for color everywhere, and juxtaposes his welding of found colors into sounds with the syncretic towers of Simon Rodia in Watts.
On the National Mall and by our TV sets all Americans will be looking for color at the inauguration and seeing plenty of it, a feast for sore eyes. And listening for Alexander to read a poem that will bring memories of Robert Frost at the Kennedy inauguration, unable to read his long prepared text, “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration” in the blustery weather, but speaking “The Gift Outright” as a full-throated discourse on the nation’s marriage to the land.
Poetry critics need something to write about, so the old debates continue, like those between advocates of “political poetry” and “personal poetry.”In caricature form, this would be a debate between those who write about monumental public figures and those who write about love relationships and flowers.(“Flowery” is the chief insult hurled by partisans of the hard-edge against not only a melodious style but a subject matter bereft of heroic struggle.)The debate between advocates of “formal” verse and “free” verse rears its ugly head from time to time. But working poets like Hayden and Alexander please us because they move beyond the hostile contraries, contributing to the sum total of reality and vision we work with in our everyday lives and in our reveries. The word for the day is post-partisan, best understood not as granting equal time to Artur Rubenstein and Thelonious Monk, or Stravinsky and Paul Robeson, but imagining the world as something more complex than a football game with two rival teams locked in combat forever. If we have the collective wisdom to grant every poem, like every flower and every person, the right to be seen and heard, we have a chance to advance in the direction Hayden indicated in “Words in the Mourning Time”:
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike
permitted to be man.
Robert Hayden was the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, the forerunner of the Poet Laureate office, during 1976-77. Afterward, he would perform a funny routine about the tasks of his position. “People would call me up and say, ‘Is this the Consultant in Poetry? Can you tell me what blank verse is?’” And he did a stand-up shtik in which his boss Gerald Ford would sidle into the office, pull out a thick sheaf of paper from his waistcoat pocket, and say, “Bob, the little lady likes to try her hand at verse now and again. I wonder if you. . .?” On the subject of his proximity to the eminent, he liked to tell the story of finding himself standing next to Henry Kissinger at the urinals one day, giving him a big smile and saying “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and receiving an alarmed look from the great man, who finished up quickly and fled the bathroom. He meant the anecdote, I think, as a parable of how futile it was to speak poetry to power. But that didn’t discourage him from going back to Ann Arbor and writing “American Journal,” one of the most inventive and post-partisan public poems of our period.
So, you go, Elizabeth Alexander, and help nurture the Obama Era now in its genesis. And thank you Jorie Graham for writing about Guantanamo. And Galway Kinnell and Lawrence Joseph and Timothy Liu for the montages of lower Manhattan during 9/11. And Raymond McDaniel for bringing Hurricane Katrina to vivid life again in Saltwater Empire. And Jacqueline Osherow for articulating the spiritual connection between America and Israel in The Hoopoe’s Crown. Thanks to all poets who celebrate the glamour of flowers, and the raptures (and desolations) of love. Don’t worry about your readers being too doctrinaire or lacking the intellectual curiosity to pay attention.
We are hanging on your every word.
(Editor's note: this post first appeared on January 9, 2009)