"When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live."
–Sen. John F. Kennedy, Address at Harvard University, 1956
Was it just me, or was the "praise song" recited at President Obama's inauguration pretty damn awful? I thought Obama's speech itself was more poetic. I thought Rick Douchebag Warren's invocation was more meaningful. I didn't actually get to see the inauguration---I listened to it on the car radio---and when the "poem" started I kept wondering what the hell was going on. It was just a real stinker. And it was not delivered well.
I don't blame the poet. Obviously beyond this being an incredible honor it was also an incredible challenge bordering on an impossible burden. Robert Frost's 87-year-old eyes couldn't read the special poem he'd written for JFK in the glare of inaugural snow, so he recited "The Gift Outright" (one of JFK's favorite poems) from memory. Those shoes are even bigger to fill than Maya Angelou's muʻumuʻu.
Again, I don't blame her. It's not really her fault that traditional poetry has suffered such a widespread decline in our current culture. Kids don't learn poetry the way they did in Robert Frost's day. Our newspapers don't print poems the way they once did. Poetry seems confined to the academy without any widespread acceptance of style or form. Poems seem to be read only by other poets rather than consumed by the public.
The academic coddling most poets receive today sort of justifies Bukowski's old line that "great poets die in steaming pots of shit." Mediocre poets, it seems, live in college towns giving readings to near-empty auditoriums, often more proud of their particular brand of identity politics than they are of their poetry. The "poetic" verbiage in the Obama inauguration poem ("din," "darning," "declaimed," or "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp") just reminded me of the kinds of words and alliteration you see in every small-press publication by an academic poet or---even worse---every spoken word chapbook. The poem was okay. But shouldn't it have been more than okay? The form was so free it felt confined by its freedom. Its passages aspiring to Whitman seemed overly restrained. This perplexing restraint in the face of possibility---all the epic and sweeping possibility embodied in this young, groundbreaking new president---seems the very antithesis or hope, fearful of any grandiosity that would have been perfectly suited for this moment in history.
I am glad Clinton tried to revive Kennedy's bold decision to include poetry in the inauguration ceremony. I am also glad Obama decided to revive Clinton's move after 8 years absent of any poetry. But who is the poet who could have stood up there and done this man justice? Who is our Robert Frost, our Whitman, or any gentle old soul who could have stood up there and stunned us with words full of bold poetry fit for this occasion? The truth is we don't have one. We just don't need poets like Robert Frost or Walt Whitman anymore. Or, as Kennedy's quote above would suggest, maybe we need them now more than ever?
I welcome comments on this, especially angry, argumentative ones. Everybody has just been so nice about the inauguration, and for the most part it was really inspiring. But as someone who had to translate a lot of Latin occasional poetry and someone who secretly still loves to read old poems, I just found the inauguration poem really sad.
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