When It Comes To Picking Poets, Barack Obama Is No Jack Kennedy

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 for The Wall Street Journal, in an adulatory piece about Blanco’s performance, 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.

Joel Gehrke edits Doublethink and writes for The Washington Examiner. This piece first ran in the Contemporary Poetry Review. Inauguration image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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