Many, many thoughts crossed my mind as Richard Blanco finished reading his inaugural poem at President Obama’s swearing-in last week. Well, I guess it could have been worse was not one of them. But now I know: It could have been worse.
Blanco called his poem “One Today.” The theme was the same as the president’s address: unity and how we’re really one big happy country when you get right down to it. Like so many ambitious, patriotic poems, “One Today” provided a panoramic ride on the Walt Whitman GoodTime Land o’ The Free Tour-mobile®. In six minutes’ worth of prose sentences broken up to look like verse, we were taken from one coast to another, seeing happy workers working Whitmanesquely, productive farmers farming, brawny truckers trucking, and trains a-rollin’ down the track: faces and hands planting, weaving, stitching, digging, and, of course, breathing. No yawping, thank God.
Like Lennon and McCartney, Blanco’s poem followed the sun. From the first line his imagery was confusing. When the sun rose, it “kindled over our shores.” Can you “kindle over” something, like a shore, without setting it ablaze—especially if right away you go on “peeking . . . greeting . . . spreading” and “then charging across the Rockies”? It makes the sun sound like an arsonist on the lam. In addition to the one sun, there are also one sky, one light, and one ground. This one ground is “rooting us to every stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat . . .” I can see how the stalk could be rooted to the ground, but not how the ground could root us to the stalk. And I’ve thought about this pretty hard. As for the sweat sowing heads of wheat . . . never heard of such a thing.
My point is not to poke fun at Richard Blanco. Well, it is, actually, but he seems like a likable if extremely earnest fellow. Any way you cut it, it’s an anachronistic job he was asked to do, writing and delivering a poem to order. It’s like a mandate from another age, back when poets were thick on the ground and one or another of them could be counted on to pipe up at any civic occasion, christening every public event to any public purpose, from a toll road ribbon-cutting to a fish fry. Blanco’s purpose on Inauguration Day was political, though he couldn’t admit it—just as the president’s address was a political document disguised as a celebration of transideological unity.
This is an Obama trademark. What was being celebrated on Inauguration Day wasn’t a grand coming together but an inevitable separating out—the vanquishing of one set of political interests and beliefs (Republicans, conservatives, libertarians) by another (the president’s, Blanco’s, 51 percent of voters’). Obama-style, the victory is not portrayed as the consequence of division but the fruit of unity. We are a united country—Blanco said so, the president said so—moving nobly and steadfastly toward a shared goal in a single direction, except nearly half the population is being dragged along by the hair, kicking and screaming.
There were other poems celebrating the president’s inauguration by poets as well known as Blanco. (Blanco is well known among people who know poets well.) Reading these inaugural efforts is how I discovered how much worse, poetically and politically, “One Today” could have been.
Noting that Robert Frost had read his poem “The Gift Outright” at John Kennedy’s inauguration, Yahoo! News decided to commission inaugural poems from “our favorite living poets.” The world of poetry is not large; successful poets establish their success either by sitting on panels that hand out awards for poetry or accepting awards for poetry from panels that other poets sit on. Inevitably the poets chosen by Yahoo! were Pulitzer winners, or winners of or finalists for the National Book Award and/or the National Book Critics Circle Award or the Bollingen Prize or other prizes that serve as a membership card to the poetry guild.
Perhaps the selection impressed the readers of Yahoo! News, I don’t know, but Yahoo! News was very impressed with the results. Their poets produced “poems that can, in our humble opinion, stand beside even ‘The Gift Outright’ in ingenuity and sheer beauty.” Yahoo! News was wrong about this.
We sang, sang Brenda Shaughnessy (National Book Critics Circle Award), for example, a song of saying so, singing O / So we might be heard, we voted. O, out of many, one. / Out of everyone, you. The “you” here is, of course, the Big O himself, the president. O you are still president / and that is our poetry. The plain truth made beautiful. It’s not hard to imagine Brenda Shaughnessy, thinking up her poem, making an “O face” of her own. In her favor, she also refers to Rachel Maddow as a “flotation device”—a poetic image that makes more sense the longer you think about it.
In “Oath,” Kevin Young (National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award) offered an orthodontic image of the president getting sworn in: this smidge of sun—shine it down into your mouth. Glug. James Tate (Pulitzer, National Book Award) wrote a letter to the president, “Dear Mr. President,” instead of a poem. It resembled a poem only in that it was impossible to decipher. (A “pile of leaves” working as a loan officer in a bank and offering discount loans! Go figure.) Paul Muldoon, in “For Barack Obama,” rhymed “deliver” with “chicken livered.” I’d say “Give that man a Pulitzer!” if he didn’t already have one.
One of the poems created what we in the Old Media like to call “an Internet sensation.” James Franco is a movie actor, hence an idiot, hence a source of rich amusement that swells to the degree he insists on being taken seriously. So seriously did he take his poem, “Obama in Asheville,” that he read it for a video and even put on a T-shirt. He filmed himself lying down, however, and on the video he had a sapped, woebegone look, as though he had spent a tortured night writhing in the cauldron of poetic creation, searching, searching for le mot juste. But probably not: I was in Asheville, studying writing . . . / I write confessions and characters and that sort of thing.
“Obama in Asheville” is a long poem—not the Aeneid, but long enough for the poet to drop the names of Thomas Wolfe, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cormac McCarthy, and the likes of Tom Cruise / And Katie Holmes, and Claire Danes . . . and the likes of Christopher Hitchens, too, and his wife, whose name he evidently forgot and was therefore not worth dropping. And the president, of course. I met Obama once, the poet writes. Another one of Obama’s many notable achievements.
“Obama in Asheville” crescendos in the poet’s reflections on a movie that might someday be made about the president:
If I were to act in the film about Obama, / All I would need to get down . . . is his essential kindness.
And then comes the last line:
I’d win the Academy Award if I just captured that.
I don’t know about James Franco winning an Oscar. But wait till the National Book Critics Circle Award gets a look at him!
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.