Poetry at the Presidential Inauguration: A Bad Idea?

Seemingly the only way to be noticed as a poet in America today is to have an enormous personality, and then to go on and inflate it to a size suitable for mass media spectaculars.

(I'm thinking of the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Patti Smith, both of whom — by the way — are real poets, no matter how much they enjoyed and/or enjoy the spotlight.) 

So the news that the President-elect has called on the relatively obscure Elizabeth Alexander to read at his inauguration has brought forth a lot of grumbling. Few non-poets seem to like the concept. George Packer, the excellent New Yorker reporter/writer, in his blog Interesting Times lets go with an uncharacteristic blast of vitriol at the very concept:

For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written
by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm,
emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large
public settings. In response to the news about Obama’s inaugural, Derek
Walcott, who is about the only poet I can think of who might have
pulled it off, but wasn’t selected, said, “There have been great
occasional poets—poets who write on occasion. Tennyson was one. I think
Pope was another. Frost also.” It’s not an accident that Walcott
couldn’t name a poet born after 1874. And even Frost, who was chosen by
J.F.K. to read the first inaugural poem in American history, botched
the job, composing a piece of triumphalist doggerel that compared
Kennedy to the Roman emperor Augustus. The eighty-six-year-old Frost
kept losing his place in the winter sun’s glare, the wind whipped his
pages around on the podium, and finally he abandoned the effort, as if
he’d never really had much conviction in it, and instead read from
memory an earlier and better poem, “The Gift Outright.”

Poets polled on the choice by the Philadelphia Inquirer are far more enthusiastic about Alexander, but wouldn't you expect that? What poet is likely to slam another in this context, especially a critically-acclaimed poet such as Alexander?

But despite his bilious tone, Packer has a point, one that Brian Phillips articulated more clearly in a recent issue of Poetry, in an essay called Poetry and the Problem of Taste.

Phillips argues that we as a people have so lost our connection to poetry we can hardly hear it. It's  a spray of words to most of us most of the time, and almost worse than useless:

How taste comes into being, and what influences preside over its birth,
are questions about which a great deal has been written. An equally
interesting question, and one that has received far less attention, is
how taste occasionally dies. For it ought to go without saying that the
capabilities of taste are not present to the same degree in every art
audience; they will sometimes, with regard to one medium or another,
seem to weaken, to shrivel away. This phenomenon is always strange. It
does not, for instance, appear to be strongly related to the popularity
or the prestige of a given art form: taste is often intensely present
in the tiniest aesthetic subcultures on the Internet, while the
audience for, say, contemporary orchestral music, far more prestigious
in itself, appears largely bewildered in taste's absence. Indeed,
during the last hundred years it has been the most institutionally
prestigious art forms that have lost the most from their supply of
taste, that have seen taste thin around them like an expiring
atmosphere; and a great deal of the brittleness that we currently sense
in these arts is surely related to this.

What happens when the relationship between an audience and an art
form begins to fail? A kind of obscurity, something felt but not quite
formulated, overwhelms aesthetic judgment. It becomes difficult to say
what is good or bad, and worse, what one likes or dislikes. Somehow
these questions appear unconnected to what is actually happening. The
atmosphere fills with the bad air of theories. Conservative outcries
are feebly raised, in response to no evident controversy. Discussion
shies from the work of artists, withdraws to the question of survival,
the ominous question of the future. What will the way forward be?
Irving Howe wrote that all literary revolutions begin in an assault on
a standard of taste. Where will the next one begin, if the standard of
taste is a vapor?

Back on-line in Internet time, Packer went on to partially retract his complaint in a follow-up post (although he did point out that popular music, which is still a matter of taste in the country at large, might offer a better spokesperson for the occasion).

Someone like Bruce Springsteen, perhaps? Who may play the inauguration?

Despite these arguments, how better to make poetry a matter of public taste than to take it to the nation? A lot of us have doubts about modern art, but still remain willing to discuss sculpture, after all.

Here's hoping Alexander rises to the challenge. Poetry maven Al Filreis of UPenn suggests she could fall back on her War poem, if she can't come up with something good for the occasion, and helpfully offers a link to Alexander reading it.

It's an impressive poem, that begins with a startling line:

In the dream there was goo

Well, hmmm. Take a lot of nerve to read that one to the nation…

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  1. sfmike

    Hope she does read, “In the dream there was goo…” Seriously popular poetry in the Western world right now is only to be found in rap music. I’m not a big fan of either high art poetry or rap music but I suspect the problem is myself. The former is too difficult to comprehend and way too mannered for my tastes, while the latter is music that (deliberately) offends me. And yet I’m an opera enthusiast, which even at its best is nothing more than music and poetry combined. Go figure.

    George Packer, by the way, is pretty much the essence of a middlebrow, educated hack. Alexander looks even better for his objections. And Phillips sounds interesting, though the obvious answer to his gauntlet of “an assault on a standard of taste” is, once again, rap music which takes poetry back to its roots.

    January 5, 2009
  2. sfmike

    I think Ginsberg, who you cited as “real,” was probably the last American poet who succeeded in planting himself in the broader American culture (unless you count Rod McKewen and I don’t). I put Ginsberg’s Collected Poems next to my toilet for a good year recently and it was perfect reading. He’s aging way better than I expected.

    Again, popular poetry right now seems to be in the hands of the rap artists, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    January 6, 2009