Saturday, January 21, 2017

Of Presidents and Poets

“I have the distinct pleasure of introducing an American poet,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said, and then she spoke my name. An American poet. I read my poem, feeling American poets alive and dead by my side, feeling myself as representative in the most grave and beautiful way. A black woman whose enslaved ancestors could in theory have been sold in a slave market visible on the Mall from where she read her poem. A poet who walked in the path laid down by old Walt Whitman, who tended injured Civil War soldiers in body and soul on that Mall in its capacity as field hospital. He cared for the dying with medical attention, horehound candy and rice pudding, soothing caresses, and poetry.
That's how poet Elizabeth Alexander described taking part in President Obama's first inauguration. As fast as it began, it seemed, it was over:
I looked right and left, uncertain of where to go, in my high heels and red poet’s coat. And then people started pointing. That’s the poet! That’s the lady who said the poem! That’s the poet lady! A large crowd grew. People gathered around and started telling their poetry stories: My baby writes poems. My favorite poem is ——. I love to read. You wrote that poem? Most of the excitement was because I was the most accessible proxy to the headliner. People gathered and swamped and took pictures. I was a little wild-eyed in the headlights; a lot had happened that day and in the days leading up. I smiled my startled smile. The crowd soon thinned.
Poets have been on the inaugural program five times in American history. Yesterday we featured video of the first occasion when 43-year-old John F. Kennedy invited the 87-year-old Robert Frost to speak.

Another young Democrat who had met Kennedy as a teen, Bill Clinton- then 46- revived the practice in 1993 and 1997. Barack Obama, who took office in 2009 at 47, renewed it again (Jimmy Carter included James Dickey at a 1977 gala).

There was no poetry, everyone pretty much agrees, at President Trump's swearing in, though social media saps widely shared a fake news account of an Ode to The Donald.

Maybe to some there's a whiff of the curse of poets laureate, holders of royal appointments expected to turn out odes on the birth of down-in-the-birth-order-princesses and celebrating the end of droughts, resulting in bad verse by great writers (Wordsworth made taking the job conditional on no made-to-order birthday poems; Tennyson loved churning them out).

Perhaps to others, there's an air of elitism about it, something Republican mandarins like to avoid while propping up threadbare claims to be of the common clay (the last eight GOP presidents have been a World War II general and hero; two former vice presidents; the son of a president; a congressional caucus leader; a movie star and a billionaire reality show star).

Indeed, on the PBS News Hour last night, Matt Schlapp (a former Koch Bros. employee and chair of the American Conservative Union), praising what he called "very blunt, realistic talk," archly- and incongruously- added,

Look, if you want poetry, there was another candidate for you.
Columnist Mark Shields put words to the reaction of many viewers:
...if Matt isn’t too busy going to his nighttime affairs [Schlapp was tuxed-up for a Trump ball], he could tell us who the candidate of poetry was in 2016. 
MARK SHIELDS: Was that Rick Perry? Did I miss it? Or was it Scott Walker? I missed it.
Indeed, one struggles to guess in whose heart of the 19 candidates for president last year a verse libre poet struggles to rhyme free. Republicans just don't like poets generally, or any of the liberal arts. The poet Gary Soto wrote in 2013,
...a few vote Republican. Generally, those poets iron their jeans and then re-iron them with sharp creases. Republican poets are all always men.
The actor Jimmy Stewart was an outstanding Republican poet. Had he not become a Britsh subject, T.S. Eliot would have been.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio was definitely not the secretly poetic president-wannabe, remarking during his short campaign, "We need more welders and less philosophers."

North Carolina Republicans have taken a more conventional view of poets: hippies, liberals, queers, and/or academics. In 2014 Governor Pat McCrory ignored the established process for selecting one, announcing on a Friday afternoon he was replacing the incumbent with a claims examiner at the state Department of Health and Human Services who's self-published two slender collections in the previous three years.

McCrory, who later claimed he didn't know there were any guidelines, said he acted to create opportunities “for people that aren’t always a part of the standard or even elite groups that have been in place for a long time.”

The thoroughly-embarrassed civil servant returned the laurel after a week.

To be fair, poets can be a stroppy lot. Republicans sat on their hands when First Lady Laura Bush tried to hold a White House Symposium on Poetry, knowing angry lefty versifiers would shout the event down for them (poet Robert Lowell famously boycotted a Johnson-era White House Festival of the Arts over Vietnam, too).

But mostly, any nonmilitarized expression of culture is effect and to be mocked. Witness Anthony Paletta's 2009 American Spectator article, "Inaugural Poetasters," in which he savaged Elizabeth Alexander and inaugural poetry generally: it yet another play for the locked-up sympathy of Writer’s Almanac-listening northeastern freelancers?...It might seem a hopeful resurrection of the WPA Federal Writers Program Spirit, bringing government back into art, putting today’s unemployed Cheevers and Hurstons to work in the national service. Yes...Whatever the case, it’s a strong argument for Republican rule. They don’t do this.
News reports indicate President Trump plans to zero out all federal funding for the arts in his first budget, something Republicans have tried to do for decades.

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