by Jacob Sunderlin, contributing editor
If you needed more than the existence of Siri to prove that we’re living in Back to the Future Part II, you got it the other day in the weirdo shitstorm of Yahoo! News-commissioned inaugural poems. I’m too dumbstruck to say whether or not the existence of “Obama in Asheville” is a “good thing” for “poetry,” which is a boring argument anyway that results in dumb-ass articles like this. Instead, I’ll just tell you my experience of this Lynchian inaugural hullaballoo.
Like many, perhaps, I discovered that I could watch the president’s inaugural address live-stream on the internet when I went to check my email (which was when I remembered that the President was being inaugurated) so I clicked on the thing that said WATCH NOW and a tiny window full of people popped up. I guess the address was over because the video just showed a bunch of people standing around and the marine band playing some march-type America jams as the crowd dispersed. Then I got some poems rejected by Ploughshares and watched the inauguration video on YouTube and muted the computer while an ad for Dial played. I thought it was a good speech. Then, I discovered the first of the inaugural poems—the actual inaugural poem, “One Today” by Richard Blanco.
It’s OK. I guess I wish he hadn’t taken the write-a-Whitman-poem-workshop-exercise tactic: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day.”
Listening, I started to feel like I used to feel at church, how I used to zone out during the sermons and draw elaborate swords on the back of the collection envelopes. Also, the line about the empty class desks—a little crude, maybe? I don’t know, but halfway through I found myself wishing for Bob Hicok’s poems written after the VA Tech shooting. If I’m ever president, I’ll surely pick him. Or set my horde of Presidential scientists to bring Szymborska back to life.
In all seriousness—what a ridiculous task for Blanco: “Write a poem for people who don’t read poems and it should be about AMERICA and you’re going to have to read it in front of 800,000 people, and no matter you write, all anyone is going to be able to say about it is: ‘What a ridiculous task for Blanco. Impossible to write a good inauguration poem—but nice try.’” Yikes. I think he was really a fine choice, and I think his poem did what it needed to do, and I hope he sells a billion books. Or the poetry-equivalent, which is like two thousand books. I’m going to read one anyway. (Any recommendations?)
Some time after this I found out—typically, as per the 2013 information trade—about the Yahoo News-commissioned inaugural poems via a response video someone posted on Facebook. At first, I first thought this might be some kind of a badass anti-gesture like when Anselm Hollo was elected the anti-laureate after Billy Collins was elected the real laureate. Unfortunately, Yahoo! is apparently not that interesting. They asked Pulitzer-prize winners James Tate and Paul Muldoon, Brenda Shaughnessy, Kevin Young, and…James Franco to compose poems for the inauguration. So, now, Blanco not only has the monumental task of doing the above-described, but he’s got to be compared to the bad guy from Spiderman.
Why do this? Wait a bit and you’ll find a post called “Why Yahoo! News commissioned inaugural poems for President Obama.” According to Virginia Hefferman, “Yahoo! News began to wonder what would happen if inaugural poets might be inspired to raise their games.”
Now, don’t get me wrong—any time a corporate entity wants to kick around its Kerouac, I’m mostly on board. Every time I hear that Iggy Pop song on the Carnival Cruise Lines commercial—I think, dude got PAID. And I think this was a really great opportunity for some poets to do something relevant. But if the aim was to suggest that poetry is a dynamic American force we should all be reckoning with, and that poets need only “raise their games,” to participate in cultural discourse, these poets approached the task in pretty lame ways.
Shaughnessy and Muldoon took the “Issues” angle, giving themselves a cool distance from seeming like they give a fuck. Their poems come off like MSNBC scroll-tape: “That first debate. Let’s face it, O you scared us / witless” already scans myopic, in contrast to the Whitman-on-Quaaludes of Blanco’s effort, before succumbing to the same sort of “We” rhetoric in the end, as if “We” all walked around decked in HOPE pins. At least “One Today” will be just as boring a year from now, whereas “To President Obama on his Second Inauguration” goes the way of Pepsi Clear. Try and imagine this in an anthology of political poems, with a footnote for the Rachel Maddow references and the 99% rhetoric. I can’t see it. (Speaking of which, I’m suddenly reminded of Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg’s fantastic project 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days, which I will return to.)
Muldoon does his rhyming thing: “When you claimed to put an end / to ‘extreme rendition’ you meant to send / a message to those who sell us short / by treating water boarding as a sport” which…eh. It’s best when he’s self-referential: “Where I come from, I’ll have you know / we not only reap what we sow / but we’re also inclined to keep / some back for sowing what we’ve reaped.” In the end, though, it comes off like hipster Simon Cowell—someone with an accent chastising the dimwits in the colonies, while we go all aw-shucks in the presence of a Yale Professor. There’s something likeable about it, but in the end it’s like a vegan Ruben—you have to take that this kind of stuff is “good for you” on faith. His glasses, though, are typically rad.
Kevin Young, who will surely be Poet Laureate someday, wrote “Oath,” which practically doesn’t exist. There’s some weather and a bird and some end-rhymes. I like some of Young’s stuff, but this is like watching Bob Vila make stairs. Plus, he had to go read it in that breathgasmy THIS-IS-A-POEM way that gives me the creeps.
The less said about James Franco’s namedrop-heavy “Obama in Asheville” the better. Plenty of people with webcams have seen fit to mock it, which strikes me as a strange kind of pile-on for so dull a poem. (Well, OK, I can’t resist—it’s a lot like watching this)
For all the swollen word-count of these poems, they make the mistake of slipping into a condescending reliance upon “common” language—for Blanco, it was a kind of flimsy bootstraps subplot to the poem (how great would it have been if the entire poem was about his mother bagging groceries?) which gets subsumed in its desire for panorama; for Muldoon and Shaughnessy, it was lame talking-points substituted for emotional experience; for Young it was as if he thought to himself, “What does everyone know about? Oh yeah, birds. Don’t want to go over anyone’s head.” Franco apparently emailed Frank Bidart to ask for help. All of them aim to aggressively transcend into the “we” and fail. Kind of like, you know, good politicians.
But this isn’t that tired argument about poetry being “dead”–this is just evidence that we need it to be a little more aware of itself in the world. Fortunately for all of us, James Tate still exists. His poem crashes the party like your weird friend’s older cousin from out-of-town showed up with drugs you never heard of and ended up getting everyone to switch clothes and dance to jugband music. Even if “Dear Mr. President” is pretty much a B-Side Tate poem, it’s the only one of the bunch that bothers to concern itself with the singular subjective strangeness of being an American in the age of Amazon reviews. In the poem, a pile of leaves in the shape of a man blows down the street, and is eventually spotted again in a bank, attempting to sell the speaker on a loan.
“Dear Mr. President” addresses the President, the people, the occasion for this poem with the dignity of respecting their intelligence. Despite its strangeness, it’s the simplest, most narrative poem of the bunch, and it doesn’t require anything weirder than the same leap of faith to watch Road Runner cartoons—the leap of faith that let’s you imagine a pile of leaves as a man in bank clothes. It is a faith, despite the weird machinations of the world, in the individual experience. It’s a story for a country full of stories. The leaves are weak, will be blown apart in the wind, but the pile is still “smoothing himself with satisfaction.” Pretty fucking American, if you ask me.
PS: Late breaking update. Apparently Yahoo! also commissioned Michael Robbins, and rejected the poem based on his use of the word “queef”. Typical. Read it here.
Jacob Sunderlin is a contributing editor to Sycamore Review and a poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.