How to write a poem for the president

Elizabeth Alexander has been commissioned to write a poem for Inauguration Day. But the checkered history of the form suggests it's an almost impossible task.

Published January 15, 2009 11:52AM (EST)

When I first heard a poet would read at Obama's inauguration, I was driving through Oakland, Calif., kid in the back seat, on my way to a cafe with Wi-Fi and a jungle gym. I had a poem to e-mail to a journal and a play date at noon. Melissa Block of NPR's "All Things Considered" began her story as I pulled into a parking spot, and I idled there for five minutes, passing raisins to my daughter, as poet Elizabeth Alexander spoke about the honor and her plans for the ceremony. How much better can things get? First I get a leader, now I get a poet? Not only a poet, but a poet I recognize and like? Is free daycare next?

Then Melissa Block mentioned that as a 1-year-old Alexander had been carried to see Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and in a head rush of gratitude I nearly laid my forehead on the horn.

Since that broadcast, I've been thinking about the kind of work Alexander's been asked to compose -- an "occasional poem," meaning verse produced for a special event -- and discovered an anxiety it seems other poet friends share.

As a genre, occasional poetry originated with classical Latin poets, who used it to honor leaders and commemorate ceremonies of home and state. Since then it's become less common, though it enjoyed flashes of favor in the 17th and 18th centuries. These days, in the United States at least, poems are still commissioned for the incidental donor gala or somber anniversary, though the practice is by no means a convention.

There's no starker demonstration of our culture's separation of poetry and state than the fact that our nation's poet laureate, a consultant post to the Library of Congress filled on an annual basis since 1937, is not expected to produce verse for government events. It's easy to see why: What poet today would allow his or her voice to be yoked to the policy of a presidential administration, even one as popular as Obama's? At what point would the poetry become propaganda?

If the post was on the hook for occasional verse, as it was in England before Wordsworth resisted in 1843, America's current poet laureate, Californian Kay Ryan, would be writing and delivering the inaugural poem. With no disrespect to Alexander, that's something I'd have given my book budget to see. In addition to being a fluid, lucid poet, Ryan is a lesbian, who lived with her partner of 30 years in Fairfax, Calif., until her partner died on Jan. 3, 2009. Four years ago, in February 2004, they were married in San Francisco's City Hall. How's that for a voice to follow the invocation of Rick Warren, the anti-gay evangelical preacher who supported California's divisive Proposition 8 in November?

But if the poet laureate doesn't write poems for the state, why should other poets? That depends on the poet and the public event, and goes a long way to explaining why so many of my peers freeze up at the challenge of occasional verse. For what's being asked of us is not necessarily a great poem (though a great poem would be a triumph), and not at all the kind of poem we're practiced at composing.

What's being asked is the fulfillment of a ceremonial role, something many Americans only experience in the one familiar ceremony where poems are routinely recited: the wedding. Not uncommonly, poets asked to choose a marriage poem (as most poets over 30 will tell you) give up the hunt for material both suitable and inspiring, thinking they'll try to write the thing themselves. Next comes the panic: I have no idea how to write an occasional poem! For my own wedding, what I finally did was rework one of my existing poems; I did the same thing for the recent union of some close friends.

Did the revised poems suffer as stand-alone verse? Of course. Stanzas were tweaked to personalize the themes and ensure no lines risked being misconstrued, given the focal story of that day's bride and groom. But whatever the poems lost in independence they gained in ritual and sentiment, and the affection of the moment still attaches to the poems for many who were there to receive them. This is probably why Goethe, an overwhelmingly social poet who was also a public official, asserted that "occasional poetry is the highest kind."

A provocative claim, but I like my poetry on the page: solitary, unscheduled, perhaps talking to me personally but by no means shouting so all can hear.

This isn't to say a poem can't be written in response to a public event. On the contrary, poems often wrongly described as "occasional"  -- Yeats' "Easter, 1916" and Auden's "September 1, 1939" are two prominent examples -- were written after the occasion they commemorate, both of them rising above the moment to give meaning over time. Auden certainly didn't write his poem in anticipation of the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II; the shock of the event conceived the poem, which was written in the days following the war declarations. Further, it was not only a great poem in 1939, it was a great poem in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks cast the stanzas in a new twilight, at the end of one era and the menace of the next.

An old poem was similarly reclaimed at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 by Robert Frost, the first poet in America's history included in the ceremony. (Alexander is only the fourth.) After faltering with the beginning of a week-old original poem he had decided to write at the last minute, he finally said, "This was to be a preface to the poem I can say to you without seeing it." On familiar ground now, his voice boomed as he recited his own 20-year-old poem beloved by JFK and first printed in "The Witness Tree" (1942). This was "The Gift Outright," with its stunning invocation,

 To the land vaguely realizing westward,

a line reborn at that instant to signify the promise of the Kennedy presidency. Like the Americans of the poem, who hold themselves back from their country until they find "salvation in surrender" and "give [themselves] outright" to the land, Frost gave in to the greater poem, which became its own gift. The poem thus rewrote its own title and theme in ways impossible before JFK's inauguration. In fact, Frost's delivery was powerful enough that most Americans, reporters included, forgot the uncomfortable few minutes that preceded it. "Frost's Poem Wins Hearts at Inaugural" read the headline in the next morning's Washington Post.

The inaugural poets who followed, Maya Angelou (1993) and Miller Williams (1997), went forward with verse written specifically for the ceremony, and neither poem reads well when wrested from its event. Maya Angelou, despite her seemingly limitless talents and remarkable life story, delivered to my ears a real groaner, "On the Pulse of Morning."

As for Miller Williams, it wasn't until I became a fan of his daughter, musician and songwriter Lucinda Williams, that I took a closer look at his work. Not surprisingly, he's a much stronger poet than "Of History and Hope," the sensible, solemn, ultimately forgettable poem he delivered at Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997, gives him credit for.

Why is poetry so different from other disciplines? Music and the plastic arts (painting, sculpture, architecture) are demonstrably receptive to commissions, with great works created on command, as it were. With sculptures and buildings, we only have to walk a few downtown blocks in most major cities to see lasting examples of both, pro and con.

The problem for poets is not the commission -- Milton's "Lycidas" and Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" are both immortal poetry commissions -- but the occasion, which fixes the poem with a public event. Once the function has passed, the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time.

So let's dispense with this idea that poets can produce lasting poems for public events. It's unfair to the audience, discomposes the poet, and probably confirms the low opinion of poetry some listeners already hold.

When we read poetry to ourselves, the occasion of a great poem is an internal event, organizing the perceptions and determining the material. When that occasion is a point in time and place, the work is more likely to be stuck there when published: partial, responsible, contemporary, rarely timeless.

How does this prepare us for the original verse Alexander will recite on Tuesday, Jan. 20, following Obama's inaugural address? Based on her volumes, the most recent of which, "American Sublime," was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, we can expect it will be generous and heterogeneous in its influences: skillful in tone, bold in emotion, deeply rhythmic in delivery. As for Alexander, she will be better prepared than Frost, more succinct than Angelou, and livelier than Williams. And it's likely we, the audience, will be moved in ways we weren't expecting to be moved, just as we sometimes choke up at the craziest words when sitting through the wedding of a loved one.

But if the words do not do the same thing on the page, that's no fault of the poet. It is the occasion that speaks through her, an occasion that carries with it a shared universe of meaning, one not only privy to consumers of poetry but to Americans at large. That's the role Alexander is poised to fulfill. Her given occasion will not only commemorate the election of the nation's first African-American president -- a friend and former colleague -- but the 200th anniversary of the birth of the leader most often invoked as forerunner and mentor to the president-elect: President Lincoln.

"It is appropriate to revisit the words of President Lincoln," explains the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) in its announcement of the 2009 theme, a leader "who strived to bring the nation together by appealing to 'the better angels of our nature'. It is especially fitting to celebrate the words of Lincoln as we prepare to inaugurate the first African-American president of the United States."

Specifically, the inaugural theme is "A New Birth of Freedom," a phrase taken from those last, resolving lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

... that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In the emphasis of Lincoln's dedication on the equality of all people, and the continuity between the living and the dead, we hear the substance of a poem written three years before by the American poet most associated with Lincoln and the spirit of our country: Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," that uncanny meditation on continuity and passage -- present to future, individual to community, body to soul.

Chances are Alexander hears it too. In an early-'90s article for the Village Voice, she names two poets she'd take with her to the "proverbial desert island": Gwendolyn Brooks and Walt Whitman. (Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet from Chicago's South Side, a former U.S. poet laureate and masterly fuser of form and African- American vernacular.) Whitman, writes Alexander, "is intoxicated with all that human life and the natural world hold."

More recently, in a December 2008 interview with the Poetry Foundation, Alexander replied to a request for a poem reflecting "the cultural moment" by saying, "I have truly in my head been hearing lines from Walt Whitman's 'I Hear America Singing.'" For Alexander, what stirs Whitman's words is how Obama's "campaign truly belonged to an extraordinary cross-section, not only of Americans ... but of people the world over."

When Alexander steps up to the podium on Jan. 20, she'll look out over the National Mall, where the Armory Square Hospital for soldiers stood during the Civil War. It was at this hospital that Whitman spent his discretionary time while working at a series of government posts. He talked with the sick and wounded, brought them gifts, wrote letters to their families, and sat beside them when they died.

When Alexander begins to read, I'll hear "these honored dead" speak through her as they spoke through Lincoln, and as Whitman himself, prophet of inclusiveness and of the multitudes gathered on the mall, speaks through his great poem of crossing over, casting himself into the future on the numinous immediacy of the occasion:

It avails not, neither time or place -- distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever
so many generations hence;
I project myself -- also I return -- I am with you, and
know how it is.


By Jim Fisher

Jim Fisher was manager of IT support at Salon from 1999 to 2004.

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