- Contemporary Poetry Review - http://www.cprw.com -

Praising Athenians in Athens: On the Failures of the American Ceremonial Poem

Perhaps the most surprising feature of Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” is that hardly anyone took notice. In the week after the inauguration, the blogosphere was eerily quiet in regard to the poem. The Washington Post failed to run the complete text until Saturday, and the few online weeklies that bothered to devote any space at all to it tended either to focus on Mr. Blanco’s gay, Latino biography or to bury its mention beneath the day’s most important news: the Beyonce lip-syncing scandal. Although Mr. Blanco’s poem has deservedly fared better in meager public opinion than its immediate predecessors, the dearth of serious critical response suggests that Mr. Blanco’s effort—in spite of its lofty sun, moon, and stars optimism—violated the most important obligation of the ceremonial poet, which, needless to say, is to commemorate. Apparently, it is far more difficult for an American inaugural poet to “praise the Athenians in Athens” than Socrates ever imagined.

In this regard, Mr. Blanco is not alone. No American poet—not even Robert Frost—has written a good, let alone marginally acceptable inaugural poem.  Puffed up with political pieties and generally employing coma-inducing, bureaucratic language, American inaugural poems lack the energy and insight of their authors’ best poems and, by and large, remain wholly forgettable. Who among us can recite a beautiful line from Miller Williams, James Dickey, or Elizabeth Alexander? And why should this be so?  If, as Aristotle argues in the Art of Rhetoric, the most important feature of the epideictic poem is its memorable display of rhetorical schemes (the origin of the word “epideixis,” means, after all, to “show off”), why would American poets universally shirk this most important duty in crafting their songs of praise?

The easy answer is that contemporary American poets simply don’t possess the rhetorical training to pull it off. Since American classrooms purged classical rhetoric from the secondary school curriculum in the early twentieth century, few poets since Allen Tate have successfully employed the rich array of poetic schemes and tropes historically available to poets. Though speech writers and advertisers regularly make use of these clever language tricks, contemporary poets, under the auspices of authenticity, have eschewed classical constructions in favor of the aspirant, “barbaric yawp” indigenous to the American romantic lyric. To deploy the artificial conventions of classical verse, so the argument goes, is to betray one’s personal experience and to sacrifice truth on the altar of poetic form. Even if language sometimes falls flat, genuine poetry, they insist, must emerge organically, and, preferably, in isolation. In other words, as Buffon once noted, style, in the aftermath of romanticism, can no longer be perceived, as it once was, as the “dress of thought.”  Instead, he exclaims, “style is the man.”

The problem with this romantic model is that its genesis in democratic individualism prevents it from adapting easily to the conventional, collective discourse of politics and civic life. Although honesty is certainly a virtue worthy of pursuit in any poem, romantic authenticity alone proves inadequate for certain rhetorical exigencies, with the ceremonial poem being the most obvious example. The lyric poem’s emphasis upon individual expression, its rebellion against convention, and its limited capacity to extend itself into a lengthy, complex argument are completely antithetical to the epideictic task of giving voice to collective thought and emotion. As Aristotle reminds us, implicit in epideictic verse is the poet’s concern for what is “just, lawful, courageous, and noble.” To do that well, Aristotle suggests, the poet must honor ritual. In the manner of Isocrates or Gorgias, the poet must elevate language beyond everyday speech and remind the audience that in praising his subject he is also praising every member of the polis for upholding a shared set of cherished values that reaffirm national identity and bind the tribe.

This real issue, then, is not simply a case of rhetorical inability—certainly contemporary poets can, and do, make many fine arguments—but the outlier position American poets now occupy in contemporary culture. Marginalized and perpetually suspicious of excessive centralized power, American poets–inextricably bound to their romantic origins—have tended to critique rather than praise the myths of American exceptionalism, and to retreat from, rather than participate in, the unrelenting demands of history and the state. When contemporary poets do enter the social fray, they usually do so reluctantly, often bearing witness to the ruinous choices of coercive regimes and testifying to the suffering of their contemporaries, who (too often in our recent history) have fallen victim to war, torture, imprisonment, financial injustice, and political or racial repression.

This adversarial relationship between the American poet and centralized authority is the natural outgrowth of the country’s founding as the world’s first post-feudal democracy. Thus, when a president occasionally impinges upon our poets’ privacy by commissioning them to exalt an imperfect state, their saturation in this post-romantic ethos inevitably destines them to failure. The epideictic poem, a genre that long ago should have faded with monarchies into total obsolescence, runs counter to our libertarian heritage and asks our poets to perform a civic task the tradition has ill prepared them for.

Such ubiquitous failure, rather than a national disgrace, should be cause for celebration. A dissenting class of “unacknowledged legislators” (Shelley’s definition of the poet) serves to remind a nation that its policies sometimes harm, rather than strengthen, the state and that its leaders must ameliorate. rather than celebrate. destructive economic and social conditions. The American poet has always embraced this role, displaying with great courage and conviction a necessary iconoclasm that paradoxically preserves, rather than dissolves, this great experiment in democracy.