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:

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):

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