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The Richard Blanco Debate

Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” sucked. Take the first stanza, which manages to be at once portentous, vaguely imperialistic, and dull:

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

This is Manifest Destiny via a 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign commercial, with the jingoism muted to a relatively inoffensive level. It was a slog, a snooze, an anodyne mélange of pale Woody Guthrie knock-offs coupled with inoffensive nods to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sandy Hook Massacre. Throw in the palaver of “hello, shalom,/buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días/in the language my mother taught me,” which name-checks linguistic diversity without saying much about it, and one has a fairly bog-standard, bloodless, mainstream centrist-to-liberal political poem.

But so what? Most inaugural poems suck, as voices across cyberspace have reminded us. It is probably also true that it’s hard being beautiful, but don’t try to get much sympathy out of ugly people with that assertion. Still, the poem’s sub-mediocrity was hardly shocking. Meanwhile, the debate over the public role of poetry that ensued was even more limp than Blanco’s poem itself, a rehash of the “who killed poetry and can it matter, anyway” debate that everyone who follows contemporary poetry is a bit bored of — only a bit louder and a bit cruder.

The telling high-profile (as these things are reckoned) exchange began with Alexandra Petri’s gut-bustingly unfunny bit of snark on the Washington Post website [1], which was chock-a-block with such damning putdowns as this:

There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices.

Burn! No, wait! Petri’s evidence appears to be: a single, shitty reading she may (or may not) have attended a while back, coupled with rather generic kvetches about the MFA program culture. It’s not news that poetry books tend to sell fewer copies than celebrity cookbooks or tomes on pet accessorizing for the ultra-rich (my books have both sold well into the triple digits, and I’m not even some overrated flavor of the month with Establishment buzz at my back and diarrhea jokes in my mouth). This is the same crap that journalistic hacks have been throwing at contemporary poetry for decades based, usually, on superficial readings of small numbers of poems. Yawn.

That Petri, as someone with no particular background (or apparent interest) in poetry is able to rattle off lobotomized versions of arguments that one has heard from the likes of Joseph Epstein to Donald Hall to Dana Gioia indicates how tired and overplayed the “death of poetry” debate is. She, as a back-bench pundit, can retch out approximations of the usual arguments with little apparent knowledge of the source material. Blowing apart this claptrap should be about as easy as wasting a beached dolphin with a bazooka.

John Deming, the editor of Coldfront, managed to score a flesh wound in an insipid essay that Salon picked up [2]. After rattling off a variation of the equally facile “beautiful but useless” idea that David Orr used in his interminable defense of the poetic status quo recently, Deming argues that:

Poetry changes things every day for many thousands of people in this country. (You [Petri] claim “six.” I guess that is a “joke.”) So many of these poets are devoted not only to their craft, but to publishing magazines, to starting presses, to finding their way in a thriving, diverse, multifaceted, multi-talented, international community.

Burn! No, wait. So if poetry gives me and others pleasure, it makes a difference in some inchoate way. Isn’t that sweet? The same, however, could be said for amateur pornography, the Arthurian Order of Avalon, and the Linux operating system. Surely poetry does something—or can do something—different from any of these.

Eric Norris neatly eviscerated Deming—on Facebook, naturally—when he wrote that Deming’s rejoinder:

…comes off just as stupid and poorly reasoned as Alexandra Petri’s attack on contemporary poetry in the Washington Post, and for the same reason: it provides zero evidence that poetry being written today is better, worse or equal to the poetry written, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000, or 3000 years ago…. If he thinks Anne Carson (or anybody else) is a peer of Emily Dickinson (to propose a test case) he should be able to show us why…. All I require as a reader is a rational argument. This is really not an advanced concept. This is Composition 101: assertions require evidence.

And indeed, Deming’s evidence largely consists of name-dropping—and do we really want Dana Levin acting as a key exhibit for the vitality of American poetry?

Both Deming and Petri implicitly equate “poetry” with the effusions of the MFA programs, the winners of the associated contests, and the books emerging from the resulting swamp to eat the brains of an unsuspecting public. While Deming alludes to the more participatory side of poetry, he drastically underplays it—poetry is consumed as spoken-word, as recording, as video, a lot of which does quite well outside the MFA system. Perhaps the “po-biz” moniker has become a bit of a cliché, but it does continue to have some explanatory power—though one should not assume that everything in it is crap any more than that what lies outside it is any good. Poetry can, and does, allow us to shape and concentrate the language that we use, to marry sound and sense in a uniquely concentrated way. The kids at the slams, the open mic readers at Carmine St. Metrics, and, hell, my mother understand this better than Petri, Deming, and, judging by his rhetorically wilted inaugural poem, Richard Blanco.

Can poetry change anything? Sure. It’s changed the way I think, the way I express myself, the tightness of my trousers. It has wreaked havoc on my sleep, caused my bookshelves to bulge dangerously. Yes, poetry can change rather a lot. Go to a reading at the Nuyorican, and whether the poetry’s to your taste or not (and it often isn’t to mine), one can’t deny that the audience is into it. Will Richard Blanco’s poem change anything? Probably not. Will the ensuing discussion? At the official level, probably not. After all, an inauguration is (by its nature) a festival of the accomplished fact. Perhaps, though, we can finally dispense with these tiresome discussions about whether or not poetry is dead, in a coma, too politically correct, and all the rest. If Blanco’s lackluster poem gives us that, he will have done poetry a great service.