The loveliest, the smartest, the most full of dinosaur droppings

For Wednesday, my “Poetry and Community” students are required to judge the U.S. inaugural poems from Frost to Blanco: which is best and why. “Define best however you like,” I told them: most beautiful? politically galvanizing? original? traditional? appropriate to a formal ceremony with a gigantic audience? inappropriate yet for that reason surprising and memorable? How my senior capstone students frame that “best for what” question may be more interesting than the answers. What should an inaugural poem be or do, anyway?

Here’s my vote for the next inaugural poem. It should be: 1. Powerful and surprising enough that people not predisposed to listen just have to. 2. Designed for the medium of the voice, not print, because a lot more people will hear it than will ever google the text. 3. Short.

My ballot, alas, is totally meaningless even before hanging chads and voting machine shortages short-circuit my participation in the democratic process. Inaugural poets already have way too many imperatives to handle. First order of the day: don’t cause a ruckus that derails the administration. Meaning, don’t be offensive or even very strange; minimize risks. The huge publicity and pressure, I imagine, would also activate any poet’s inner critic, some imagined or internalized teacher, parent, contest judge—whoever’s disapprobation would make us feel worthless. (More on the actual critics later.) In addition to “A Few Don’ts for an Inauguraliste,” there would be the positive force of ambition: I feel sure each poet desired to inspire listeners, to remind them of what matters. Occasional poetry can be a great gig, but also an overwhelming one, and on this scale…

So, poets, everyone gets a prize just for participating.

“Most Imperialist”: Robert Frost steals this award, both for the poem he wrote for the occasion, “Dedication,” and for “The Gift Outright,” the one he recited from memory when glare made the first piece too hard to see. Ian Crouch wrote a great piece for the New Yorker blog about inaugural verse; I want to believe him when he says Frost’s phrase “land vaguely realizing westward” “suggests the lurching and darker qualities of Manifest Destiny, and plants doubt about the supposed purity of the American experiment.” But, man, that’s NOT the drift of this sonnet—“the land was ours before we were the land’s,” indeed. Instead, the word “vaguely” strikes me as a handy bit of near-sightedness: oops, were people already on this continent? Crouch’s assertion is, sadly, crap (see “Most Scatological,” below).

“Most Beautiful”: James Dickey might not have been entirely trustworthy on an inaugural podium; at any rate, he delivered “The Strength of Fields” at one of Carter’s inaugural balls instead. I find it the loveliest of the set, full of beautiful lines: “Moth-force a small town always has,” “Tell me, train-sound, / With all your long-lost grief,” “We can all be saved / By a secret blooming.” In many ways, Dickey’s offering is deeply suited to a farmer-president’s rise to office; he recalls Frost’s presumptions somewhat critically, too, when he compares the sea’s “fumbling, deep-structured roar” to the “unstoppable craving / of nations for their wish.” Unlike most of the poems, however, in which first-person-plural pronouns dominate, “The Strength of Fields” deploys a strong singular “I” and articulates a sense of personal responsibility for changing the world: it ends, “I will do what I can.” For all its beauty and big-heartedness, it’s not entirely a public poem.

“Most Scatological”: Clinton’s first poet, Maya Angelou, really socks Frost in the kidneys with this animistic poem. Rocks and rivers speak their own minds. Angelou includes, for good measure, the names of many brutally displaced and disenfranchised indigenous tribes AND calls out “the Ashanti, the Yoruba, and the Kru, bought / Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare” (though I question whether rhyming “Jew” with “Sioux” was felicitous). I could anoint her “Most Enamoured of Whitmanian Catalogs,” though this is a common strategy among inaugural poets. However, I’m most surprised, rereading this poem, by the first stanza’s account of “the dinosaur, who left dried tokens / Of their sojourn here.” Maybe she means fossilized footprints? But then there’s “dust” and “waste” and “debris” and “private need.” The verses strain slightly toward the excremental.

“Most Appropriate to Middle School Civics Class.” Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope.” “The children. The children.” I endorse the politics of this poem, and the impulse to write for all ages seems valid to me. School is a recurring scene in inaugural poems, too, perhaps because poets of the past fifty years hope that poetry will continue to find a home there, even if it thrives nowhere else. Still, I confess, despite my prize-giving beneficence, this one’s not my favorite, ahem.

“Smartest.” At the time, I was disappointed by Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” Like every other exuberant progressive in the country, I was ready for a radical overhaul of Bush administration policies, inaugural poetry platitudes, everything. Then came Alexander’s undramatic rendering, and networks cutting away, and students reporting how people just turned their backs on her reading, started talking loudly and meandering away (my college is just a three hours’ drive from D.C. so I have live witnesses in my classrooms). Now I reread her poem and find it brilliant. As you might expect, given the nature of the ceremony, inaugural poems trope endlessly on dawn, morning, hope, beginnings, but Alexander places her whole poem at that expectant hinge of a moment before work, school, safety, surety—this measured, perfect poem contemplates the existential state of being “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.” I love the notion and Alexander’s intellectual approach to the genre, but at the time wished for something more rousing. [Here a sentence drawing a parallelism to Obama’s first term was deleted.]

“Closest.” When he slams Blanco in favor of Alexander for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Randy Malamud is being mean-spirited—kind of, in fact, an ass. So the poem he’s had time to think about, live with, seems richer. Duh. Alexander’s poem is more polished than “One Today,” but better? For what? Malamud’s complaint about Blanco’s reference to the Newtown shootings seems most wrong: that’s the moment a shiver ran down my spine and I sat up quite straight, thoroughly focused. It’s ethically as well as aesthetically risky to reference a recent tragedy. No, “impossible vocabulary of sorrow” doesn’t cover it, but what would? The shooting is on our minds, even its meaning is “undigested” (Malamud’s indictment), so Blanco’s right to hold up a poetic mirror. I haven’t finished processing this poem—I’m hoping class discussion will help—but I like its tone of gratitude, its mesh of personal feeling and public urgency.

The puzzlement I’ll bring to my seminar is over the ending of “One Today”—its strangest section, most imagistic and dash-ridden. Like others, Blanco moves his gaze from east to west with the sun’s passage, marshaling those unifying first-person-plurals:

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together

Blanco may have lifted that plum from William Carlos Williams’ icebox; am I imagining that the gloss of rain suggests the glaze of rainwater on a red wheel/ barrow? The allusion to Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” though, a work of war and mourning, is loud and clear. Clearly Blanco is listening to other American poems. Still, I’m confused by the image of the moon—it’s like a round drum face, but grammatically it’s perpetrating rather than receiving the tapping: moonlight is calling on all of us, waking us up to look at the rearranged stars. In any case, I’m gratified that Blanco won’t name that constellation by himself. He says “or” more often than “and,” as if he doesn’t feel complete personal ownership of the language and the land. Not a bad beginning, for an ending.

Every other U.S. poet reading this: start working on your inaugural poem now, in case, in three years and ten and a half months, the moon taps you.

While we’re on the subject, enormous thanks to Diane Kendig for tracking down many of these links for her own teaching and then passing them on to me.

Some other pieces worth looking at:

Katie Waldman from Slate on Blanco and the inaugural poems Yahoo commissioned: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/01/22/richard_blanco_one_today_and_other_inaugural_poems_from_yahoo_news_reviewed.html

If you want to know why Kennedy asked Frost to recite an inaugural poem in the first place, read this great little essay (and think about how much has changed, that a president might be grateful for a poet’s publicity help): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20540

Reading, watching, listening after the non-apocalypse

Inauguration, schminauguration—what we’re all truly excited about is HEARING RICHARD BLANCO’S POEM. And then digging up the two other poems rejected by the president’s staffers (the New York Times says Blanco offered them three), and blogging about how those dumb politicos eschewed the more risky, exciting options.

Anyway, that’s what I’ll be listening to this week, along with the Lumineers, on heavy rotation at the Wheeler-Gavaler dinner table lately. I won’t be reading much beyond what I’ve assigned for classes: spoken word in print from Rattle’s excellent 2007 Tribute to Slam issue for my senior seminar; Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Thomas Sayers Ellis for tomorrow’s workshop; Wilfred Owen for my British and Irish poetry class. In a three-course-term, with brilliant medievalist job candidates rotating through and lots of conference and editing deadlines, there isn’t a lot of time for consuming art purely for pleasure’s sake—or for blogging. I will try to write in coming weeks about the inauguration poem and other matters, but in the meantime, here’s a quick update and a re-posting of my December blog for Aqueduct Press.

What I’ve read/ watched since then: I hallucinated my way through the Gormenghast books for the first time over my flu-heightened Christmas break. They’ve really stayed with me—beautiful and strange. I’d like to watch the BBC series now but haven’t yet; we just finished catching up with the first two seasons of Homeland. Spoiler alert, in case you’re even behind me: I’m really happy they didn’t kill Brody, because for reasons I can’t understand, I am bizarrely fond of the lying murderous terrorist bastard.  The last fat novel I’ll probably read for a while is the new J.K. Rowling. 100 pages in I was tweeting “all Dursleys, no Hogwarts.” I eventually changed my mind, in part because of how vivid and important all the teenage characters came to be. It’s dark and long, maybe not a journey you want to take during a northern-hemisphere January, but Casual Vacancy does invoke a vivid, complicated world inhabited by vivid, complicated characters coping with the blistering awfulness of life, occasionally gracefully. And, while I’m a Harry Potter devotee too, I have to say that in this venture Rowling’s sentences are a LOT better.

Poetry: I’m now in the middle of Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. Deborah Miranda, it’s just as terrific as you promised.

Here’s my December venture for Aqueduct’s “Pleasures of Reading, Watching, and Listening in 2012” series, but really, read it on their website, and then check out all the other awesome postings by authors much hipper than I am.

 Picture 12***

I can’t decide what metaphor to use for genre-betweenness: borderlands? The noise or static between radio stations? Twilight has been co-opted. At any rate, while I consume my share of fantasy novels and anyone-would-agree-this-is-realistic television—this year, for example, my winter Game of Thrones reading binge and summer of watching The Wire could represent those poles—I do a lot of my reading-listening-viewing in the gloaming. In fiction, this zone has many labels: slipstream, Fabulist, the New Weird. The same edgy neighborhoods exist in all the arts, though. A poem, play, or song may or may not claim a relation to speculative fiction but still present a version of human experience that feels strange, skewed, maybe magical.

I’m working on an article about speculative poetry that no one really notices is speculative, so I’ve been seeing weirdness everywhere. This year I loved Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Life on Mars: she writes about her father’s death and I read the book right as I was coping with my own father’s final illness (I blogged about it here). I also cackled through weird volumes by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Bill Manhire, and Jeannine Hall Gailey (many of those books are a few years old). I find both David Wojahn’s The World Tree and Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain spooky and brilliant; I’m enjoying dipping in and out of Ursula K.

Le Guin’s New and Selected; and I’m entranced by the poem-by-poem emergence of a Peter Pan series by Sally Rosen Kindred through various magazines. I prefer single-author collections to anthologies and journals, but it’s been interesting to see so many mainstream mags putting out calls for speculative writing. I was frustrated that the New Yorker’s otherwise engaging speculative issue didn’t even try on the poetry front (Paul Muldoon, I admonish thee!). At the time, I forecast that the forthcoming Tribute to Speculative Poetry in Rattle would do better (again, see my blog on the subject), and I’ve just had the pleasure of reading that folio (Number 38, Fall 2012). The poems by Burt Beckmann, Amorak Huey, John Philip Johnson, John Laue, Aimee Parkison, Marilee Richards, Claire Wahmanholm, Natalie Young, and several others—few of whom I’d ever heard of—are fantastic in multiple senses. I’m grateful to receive Richards’ revelation about how God adjudicates competing prayers by athletes at sports games; Johnson’s “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” is haunting me.

In fiction: this was My Year of Finally Reading Kelly Link, which, I know, reveals that I’m years behind everyone else (in case my Game of Thrones/ The Wire reference didn’t already make that clear). I was riveted by Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising. In YA, I admired Julianna Baggott’s Pure—it’s surprisingly disturbing to identify with a protagonist who has a plastic doll for a hand (I’m glad it’s doing well because the dystopian premise was alienating enough that my own kids, voracious readers, slunk away from it). I recently finished Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award-winning The Round House, too. I’ve read her books religiously since the first novel and I’ve never noticed anyone calling them speculative. After all, notions of reality are culturally specific, and in her view ghosts, visions, and totems are well within the bounds of realistic representation. (This is a huge problem in defining speculative lit. Who decides what’s strange?) Erdrich is an extraordinary world-builder, though, and the narrator of the latest book even has an obsession with Worf from Star Trek’s Next Generation. I wonder if it would be fruitful to start thinking of her work in relation to slipstream.

A lot of what I listened to in 2012 was the vinyl I bought as a teenager, once the adult me finally got a record player set up in the kitchen. David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix composed some pretty weird song-universes. I love the free podcasts from The Moth and am looking for the poetry equivalent, in case anyone has any tips. An ephemeral voicing that recently charmed me was a reading by Lev Grossman from his book in progress, a sequel to The Magicians and The Magician King. He offered a passage from the recurring character Eliot’s perspective, a hilarious description of a Narnian-style battle involving magical creatures and Grossman’s pseudo-Viking answer to Lewis’ Calormenes. The reading slayed us all, so stay tuned for the book.

My small-town location, compounded by parenthood and a massively absorbing job, means that I only see good theater a few times a year, at best. On our latest urban-fix-weekend, though, we scored tickets for David Grieg’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” a bizarre and funny musical staged in a pub. The main character is a female grad student obsessed with Scottish border ballads, so the work begins surreally with a parody of academic papers, but then she meets the devil and things get seriously crazy. It’s not a perfect play but the damn thing is in verse, it’s all about the boundaries of the fantastic, and it works. The Washington, D.C. run is over but if a portal opens near you, it’s worth entering.

Otherwise, the stuff in my “watching” category isn’t surprising. I’ll end, though, with what I wish I could see. After my fiction-writing superhero-obsessed spouse Chris Gavaler mused aloud about this, I can’t get the idea out of my head. Why can’t Doctor Who visit other BBC shows/ universes, like Merlin or Sherlock? Neil Gaiman, episode-writer-extraordinaire, if you’re listening, here is my challenge: in 2013, presuming we all survive that long, I am looking forward to sipping eggnog in front of “A Very Special Doctor Who Meets Downtown Abbey Christmas Special.”

Amygdala, shut up

While I boiled myself in the bath Sunday morning, emerging so puce-colored and limp I had to start drafting a blog post because I was just too weak to go buy groceries for my hungry family, I thought about how I’d woken up at five a.m. in a panic about my Twitter handle (too long! full of inconvenient caps! wait, is Twitter even case sensitive? I’m so stupid!).

I suffer from post-talking insomnia. If I’ve said anything at all to a friend, coworker, sales clerk, etc., I fret later that I’ve been insensitive, dumb, or boring. After forty-something years, I can almost always let the worry go after one bad night: really, if it’s still on your mind after the first cup of caffeine you should apologize, and if not, life will probably struggle on.

Each new way of talking, though, dials me back to middle-school-level fits. Facebook almost killed me. I had to sign up. First, I was researching poetry networks in the late aughts, and it seemed pathetic that I hadn’t participated in any virtual ones except for an email listserv. Second, I was planning on half a year in New Zealand, and for all Facebook’s faults, it really is one of the best ways to keep up with friends and family internationally. Finally, over a meal at the West Chester Poetry Conference, Ned Balbo told me to suck it up. Actually, he was very polite, but he did tell me that once you figure it out, you only need to spend ten minutes a few times a week to be a decent FB citizen, which turned out to be true, although when you’re really procrastinating that flickering feed can be dangerously mesmerizing. What destroyed me about the medium, though, was that standard writer’s dilemma of sussing out your audience. How could I post to modernism scholars, my local go-out-for-a-beer friends, my cousin the truck driver, poetry journal editors, college administrators, stray Republicans I’m on uneasily-friendly terms with, and, yikes, former students all at the same time? Starting a blog presented the same problem: for whom was I writing? Last summer I signed up for Twitter to follow my department’s new feed, although I didn’t really mess with it until last week, as a new year’s resolution to just try it, urged on by a few friends and that NYT article people keep sending me. I asked my daughter for advice on tweeting and she said “always be funny,” which of course completely paralyzed me, and not only because I’m rarely funny on purpose. It’s the same who’s-listening-question: funny to whom? Who really gets my lame jokes anyway except Chris and my college friend Scott Nicolay (@methysticin) and certain other poetry nerds, especially repeat-students whom I’ve forced to read everything I love and who have spent shocking amounts of time listening to me chatter?

Besides audience anxiety, or linked to it, there’s the identity question. Each medium invites you to present some facet of yourself, perhaps strategically. It might behoove me to talk like a poet-scholar-endowed-chair in all publishing arenas, which FB and Twitter certainly are, but when I hear other people doing that, it sounds bloodless at best. The funniest things I could tweet are mostly weird comments from my kids, but I don’t want to be a professional mom either—too many people are ready to define middle-aged women that way and I think about lots of things besides my fascinating children, thanks. I have strong feelings about politics and contemporary culture but rarely have an insight or cause to trumpet that someone else hasn’t already blogged about more eloquently; my head’s in the poetry-clouds so I’m just not fast enough. And while Neil Gaiman can tweet about his exercise regimen and still be interesting to people, well…let me know when you really want to hear what brand of mass-marketed tea I’m sipping while I’m watching some TV show six months later than everyone else.

For the blog, I decided I’ll be a poet/ poetry-reader who argues that everything is relevant to poetry and poetry is relevant to everything. Which isn’t much of a decision, really. In Facebook, too, I settled on ignoring the “groups” function and just posting occasionally about any random experience that seems at least slightly interesting, funny, or noteworthy, and not worrying about who’s listening. Basically, I’m just being the same me everywhere.

What works for me is to approach posting the way I approach drafting a poem. That is, I don’t know whom I’m writing for—some ideal geeky tender-hearted reader maybe who likes Emily Dickinson, David Bowie, Dorothy Sayers, Farscape, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, H.D., Thomas Sayers Ellis, Cake, Kim Stanley Robinson, Billie Holiday, Homeland, The Decembrists, Philip Pullman, Rickie Lee Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Rafael Campo, Octavia Butler, cussing in a pirate voice, dark chocolate, red wine, good bread, that handmade French ewe’s milk Roquefort the cheese lady downtown sells (can you tell my other resolution is to eat and drink less?). Anyway, if I’m imagining any reader at all, it’s that dactyl-obsessed slant-rhyme-loving totally anonymous unsexed calorie-padded soul mate. I’m not afraid to tell hir everything, and even better, if s/he doesn’t respond, my feelings can’t be hurt. After all, even if we never speak, I know s/he totally gets me. (I do think about specific readers, including editors, when I revise poems, but while I fiddle with poems for years, a blog might ferment for a day before publication.)

I don’t know if adopting that attitude is genius or an exceptionally bad career move, but this will be my mantra next time a hashtag experiment leaves me sleepless: it’s just like every other kind of writing. Be interesting. Be truthful. Be generous. All at once, in a 140 characters or fewer, several times per week @LesleyMWheeler. While simultaneously producing books, articles, and poems in a constant fever pitch of inspiration as agents, publishers, reviewers, and fans cry up to the office window in faint but passionate voices: “I’m hir!” Okay, not likely.