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No Justice Done To Poetry At The Inauguration: On Richard Blanco

John F. Kennedy’s request that Robert Frost read at his inauguration had no precedent in United States history, but, in retrospect, appears rather predictable. The 86-year-old writer was already “the embodiment of American poetry,” as Jay Parini puts it in his biography.  Parini recalls that Kennedy enjoyed Frost’s poetry, and – more importantly, no doubt – Frost liked Kennedy; the poet “seemed almost to be campaigning for Kennedy” at his lectures and public readings the previous year. Frost also appreciated the opportunity to speak to the nation. In the “dedication” he prepared for the event, Frost suggested that their appearance together at the inauguration would launch “a golden age of poetry and power.”

If the poem read at President Obama’s second inauguration fails to inspire such a golden age of verse, Obama surely bears some blame. His inauguration committee was apparently more motivated by political than aesthetic concerns. “Cynics might say that in picking a Latino gay poet, Mr. Obama is covering his political bases,” The New York Times suggested disapprovingly, but it’s not just the cynics who thought Obama was using Blanco to send a message. “What better symbol of the respect and prominence President Obama was bestowing to the gay community than his selection of Richard Blanco as the inaugural poet,” Eric Sasson wrote, in an adulatory piece about Blanco’s performance for The Wall Street Journal, before observing that “even within the microcosm of poets, Richard Blanco was not a huge name.” A White House aide published a video of Blanco discussing his inspiration in writing the poem, but the post reveals as clearly the Obama team’s inspiration for choosing the author by emphasizing that Blanco is “the gay son of Cuban exiles.” The post provides no other biographical information about Blanco, beyond his association with Obama.

The president, as a politician, ought to acknowledge his supporters, but his use of the inaugural poet to do so entailed an abuse of the art. The inaugural committee apparently issued their invitation after evaluating poets on their utility as props rather than artists – as figures who could increase Obama’s political capital and strengthen his title as an historic president. In doing so, they rendered a disservice to Blanco, a man who has dedicated himself to the art of language, by using his body as an icon for political propaganda.

Blanco still had an opportunity to salvage the moment, except he misjudged his audience. Sasson wrote that “poets today understand that the audience for their work is mostly other poets themselves,” but Blanco had that all-too-rare opportunity to recite for the nation – for millions who perhaps had never heard a poem read aloud. So why did he read for over six minutes? Why sixty-nine lines?

Robert Frost, who Parini says commanded the country’s attention in 1960 as “an icon caught in the act of being an icon,” recited the 20 short lines of “The Gift Outright.” The poem took him about a minute to read. (It’s true that he intended to preface the recitation with a longer “Dedication,” but that was a last-minute decision. When the glare of the sun mercifully prevented him from reading it, he returned to his original plan.)  Americans are as capable of enjoying beauty as anyone, but no amount of talent can make six minutes of poetry, heard once, wholly pleasant for a group of people steeped in visual arts and unaccustomed to listening to a performance of words alone.

Blanco might have served the public through giving the American people an experience of the beauty available through poetry – and, perhaps, even provided an example of language used with the clarity and honesty that politicians sometimes avoid – but he limited his own effect by failing to address his audience in a manner capable of awakening hearts cold to verse. In 1917, Ezra Pound affirmed the power of “regular meters, which have certain chances of being musical from their form, and certain other chances of being musical through [the poet’s] failure in fitting the form.” By writing free verse, Blanco disavowed the sonic effects of regular rhythm and rhyme that might have aided his audience in apprehending and enjoying his poem.

If the president had wanted his inaugural poet to do good to heart and head, he could have chosen any number of Americans who have demonstrated their ability to provide a momentary stay against confusion – one, in particular. Richard Wilbur is one of the greatest American poets, of any generation, and we have the good fortune of living as his contemporaries. He served as poet laureate from 1987-1988 (Frost held the post in the 1958-1959 term, just before reading at Kennedy’s inaugural), and continues to demonstrate his worth as poet. For instance, consider these lines from “On Freedom’s Ground,” a sequence of five poems:

Not that the graves of our dead quiet,
Nor justice done, nor our journey over.
We are immigrants still, who travel in time,
Bound where the thought of America beckons;
But we hold our course, and the wind is with us.

Those five lines conclude the last poem of the series, called “Immigrants Still,” which – like Frost’s “The Gift Outright” – runs only 20 lines. Wilbur could have recited that poem before a president and stood alongside Frost as one of the finest exemplars of American culture. He has never read at an inauguration.

No, it’s not a new poem, but the idea of reciting a poem at the 2013 inauguration that was published in 1987 should appear no less appropriate than Frost’s recitation of a poem at Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration that he published in 1941. In fact, the availability of such verse demonstrates the fundamental truth that the great poets – the ones who ought to address the nation – already have.

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- who has written 1 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Joel Gehrke is an editorial writer for The Washington Examiner and editor of Doublethink Magazine.

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7 Responses to “No Justice Done To Poetry At The Inauguration: On Richard Blanco”

  1. Sheila Packa says:

    I enjoyed Richard Blanco’s poem, and I think it reflects another strong aspect of American poetry: vision. Instead of noticing what isn’t there, the writer might attend to what is: the work of the hands, the call for gratitude, the understanding that the sun shines on all of us, the moon knocks on every roof, the voices and sounds enter the one wind that flows to all–we stand on one ground, under one sky. One need not be cynical. The poem relies on image and concrete details as well as sound. Perhaps it’s time to turn from the measured breath into longer deeper breaths, to turn from tight rhythm into a looser, syncopated one. The poem has a pattern that is not metrical but imagistic and these images depict movement, work, and activity against the counterpoint of one ground, one sky. A poem like this, addressed to many or to one, a poem that incorporates the diverse rhythms of life, is legitimate and appropriate in a ceremony of state.

  2. Reagan Upshaw says:

    I never watch the inauguration readings, figuring they’ll be as vapid as Academy Award acceptance speeches, but Gehrke is right. Get up, say what you have to say in a minute (two, tops), make it focused, and make it count. Listeners who are moved will make the effort to look it up later online.

    It would be interesting to have Carl Dennis or David Orr, two poets who have written about the difficulty of writing for the body politic, read at an inauguration.

  3. leialoha perkins says:

    Why are poetsʻ gatekeepers not happy that poetry was recognized as part of the
    Obama inauguration, for whatever reason? To suggest Richard Wilbur is to add
    fuel to the fire. For an inauguration, a NEW NAME, even if unmade, is preferble
    to an old one, simply because itʻs a new generation. I did not hear this poet but
    wish him well. His being gay and Cuban is just as pertinent as if he had come
    from Mars, to me; but no doubt critics would then carp and argue–EARTH POETS
    for EARTH PEOPLE. ugh! Little wonder why may readers skip poetry. It gets to be
    a can of worms — if only they can perform as well critiquing instead of poet bashing.

  4. David X. Novak says:

    I think your suggestion to have Richard Wilbur read was a good one. Maybe Jeb or Hillary will have the opportunity to do the right thing.

  5. K. Burris says:

    Poets should stay as far away from politicians as possible. Those poets who make a career out of currying political favor or surfing political fashion will see their work gradually dismissed and soon forgotten.

  6. Toni Seger says:

    There have been four poets that have read at inaugurations now. The first was Frost and the next three were definitely not Frost.

    You don’t have to dump on Blanco, as if he’s the biggest sinner. He’s not much worse than Elizabeth Alexander who read a very dull, very banal poem at Obama’s first inaugural and then there’s Maya Angelou’s poetry. There was a big hoopla about the poem she read at Clinton’s inauguration, but it was really pretty shallow.

    All of these poets were political choices. After all, it’s a political occasion. The first was a great poet. The rest have the unfortunate legacy of being compared to a great poet.

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