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?

Published January 19, 2001 4:30PM (EST)

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?"

By David Lehman

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