A poetry-free presidency

The lack of a poet at Bush's Inauguration is a bleak omen of his administration's attitude toward culture -- but then again, what poet would agree to appear?

Topics: Poetry, Books,

So Dubya has appointed no poet to deliver an ode at his Inauguration. So what. That was my first reaction to the news: indifference amounting to relief. At least we’ll be spared the usual inaugural doggerel. It is easy to write a bad or funny ceremonial poem to mark an occasion of high state. It is difficult to write a good one that is also sincere. And to make the attempt at such short notice — and in the aftermath of so nasty a campaign — would further lengthen the odds.

Not that anyone would give a damn. The nation little noted nor long remembered Miller Williams’ effort on behalf of fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton four years ago. So little an impression did James Dickey of Georgia make on Jimmy Carter’s big day that I now think that I must have hallucinated that poetic episode, that it didn’t happen at all.

My second, more considered, response is that the incoming administration can be charged with squandering an opportunity to signal, if only symbolically, some sort of commitment to culture and the arts. It would be a way to mend fences. But then perhaps you need to have a certain kind of president to make that happen. Think of Robert Frost reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory at JFK’s Inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961. How remarkable that was, and, in the 40 years since, it has acquired ever greater significance as a sort of cultural statement, a conjunction of poetry and power at the height of the Cold War: the aged Frost reciting a poem affirming America’s manifest destiny while the dashing young president exhorted idealists and patriots to ask what they could do for their country.

The unkind may say that there’s as much difference in quality between Kennedy and Clinton as there is between Frost and Maya Angelou, who read “On the Pulse of Morning” on Jan. 20, 1993. But it is equally true that Angelou’s eight-minute-long ode to democratic egalitarianism set some sort of record for the best-attended poetry reading of the decade.

Is it degrading to poetry as an art to choose an inaugural poet on political grounds? Arguably, but that would disown a whole genre. Does it offend aesthetes that the chief criterion for the position be suitableness as a role model? No doubt. Still, in picking Angelou Clinton scored a bull’s eye. “On the Pulse of Morning” — in which she rhymes “Greek” and “sheik,” “Jew” and “Sioux” — was popular, she read it with conviction and she inspired people who had not previously identified themselves with poetry but were about to do so in a big way.

Angelou’s performance was in fact a major cultural event with profound implications. When Janet Jackson, playing against Tupac Shakur in the movie “Poetic Justice” (1993), writes poems, it is Angelou’s poems that she writes, which I cite as evidence not only of Angelou’s personal ascendancy but of the newfound prestige enjoyed by American poetry in the era of competitive slams and the “spoken word,” of poems performed like rap songs and poetry festivals celebrated earnestly on TV documentaries.

Within half a year of Angelou’s ode the nation had a new poet laureate, also a black woman, Rita Dove, the first of a trio of activist poets laureate who took the job to heart and sought to enlarge the audience for American poetry. And it has grown larger. While at the end of the 1980s articles lamenting the imminent death of poetry were common, no one today would entertain so spurious a supposition.

Is it facile to connect the fortunes of American poetry in the largest sense with the partisan nature of the federal government? Maybe, maybe not, but Clinton did set a tone or a mood in 1993, and Bush could have taken a chance on finding a poet who wouldn’t use the occasion to denounce him. But I wondered whom the Republicans could have asked and who might have accepted, and then I reminded myself how closely poets tend to identify themselves with the Democratic Party — all the more so now, after the bitterness of an election in which the candidate with the greater intellectual stature was defeated, perhaps in part because of his intellectual stature.

It also occurred to me that my fellow poets might have opinions worth sharing and, by the miracle of e-mail, I got in touch with some estimable pals. I can say unequivocally that everyone seems to be operating on the assumption that the Bush administration is either hostile to poetry or simply clueless about it. Charles Simic, the Pulitzer-winning proponent of prose poems, said he found it “astonishing that anyone expected Bush to have a poet. I imagine he and most of his Cabinet have only the vaguest idea that there’s such a thing as American poetry, and it has no interest for them. To be a poet or a lover of poetry is to be a traitor to the only thing they care for, money, power and the NRA.” Claudia Rankine, a celebrated experimentalist who teaches at Barnard, wrote ominously, “We are the first of the many who will be made invisible by George W.”

Both Billy Collins and Robert Hass wondered about another issue: Who would be willing to serve? “It’s hard to think of an American poet who would be willing to read at the Inauguration,” Hass wrote. “That says something fairly distinct about American culture.” Hass, who succeeded Dove as poet laureate in 1995, contends that “for most writers, it’s not so much their opposition to Bush’s politics, or the fact of the Florida controversy, as the intellectual disgrace of the Supreme Court ruling, which bears on the issue of language, which is a writer’s area of professional responsibility. Everybody understands that language is used in particular ways in partisan politics, and doesn’t necessarily hold politicians responsible for it. Judicial language is another matter. The polis rests on it, which is why Dante, for example, put abusers of public language in the coldest pit of hell.” Hass lifted the phrase “intellectual disgrace” from W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of William Butler Yeats,” a January poem (1939) that succeeds precisely as a public statement, a poem of its moment. “Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face,” Auden wrote.

For Collins, whom the New York Times in a recent front-page story anointed “the most popular poet in America,” the “notion of a poet endorsing an administration by his or her participation in an inaugural ceremony raises the larger issue of the poet’s role in society. Should poets be the spokespeople for their culture, or should they remain outsiders, throwing stones over the walls, or ignoring the machinations of government as they spin their own aesthetic webs? Shelley called poets the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ the accent these days surely falling on ‘unacknowledged.’ The inclusion of a poet in this country’s inaugural ceremony is relatively recent. Kennedy invited Frost, then 30-plus years passed before Clinton had Maya Angelou at his first and Miller Williams at his second. In America, two in a row qualifies as a tradition, so it is a shame to see it broken with George W. Bush. Then again, what poet would Bush have invited? And when you’re finished thinking about that, who would have accepted?”

Suave, unflappable Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, also opted for Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators,” irresistible under these circumstances. “Illegitimate chief executives should not with unacknowledged legislators consort,” Wadsworth said. “It’s clearly a Democratic tradition (Kennedy, Clinton) to have poets bless the new president and, for that matter, most poets are Democrats. Why would Bush want to put himself in the humiliating position of inviting poets who might very publicly refuse? What if the poet were to use the occasion to recite a much-deserved satire or jeremiad on the decline of the presidency and the corruption of the electoral process?”

From Cincinnati-based James Cummins, a maestro of the sestina, come related questions: “What’s the point of reading a poem to a bunch of Republicans, anyway? I mean, it’s not like they’re going to get it. And [Bush] probably thinks most poets are gay — it’s too risky to alienate Jerry Falwell. And — heart-stopping moment — what if a poet would express reverence for, or even delight in, our national park system or wilderness reserves? Bad for bidness, bud.”

Tom Disch, who is capable of writing the sort of wittily satirical poem that would be a president-elect’s nightmare, summed up what emerged as the consensus view. “While I certainly don’t like Bush, I think his not having an inaugural poet is probably a form of good manners, since any poet who would have agreed to lend his lyre to the occasion would have been trashed by all his peers. So why ask someone to volunteer to become a pariah?”

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>