Really bad inaugural poetry.
Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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.