Chapter and Verse: Fraught Occasions

Chapter and Verse is a series where JHU Press authors and editors discuss the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

guest post by Peter Filkins

If there is one thankless job above all others, it would have to be to serve as the inaugural poet. Richard Blanco has just made his own best effort, and, like those who have come before him, the occasion seems to overwhelm both poet and poem alike.

This was literally true for Robert Frost. The glare and the wind made it too difficult for him to read “Dedication,” the new poem he had written for JFK, forcing him instead to recite “The Gift Outright” from memory. It is a good thing he did, too, for “Dedication” strays into paeans to history and national purpose that now would make us cringe:

    We see how seriously races swarm

    In their attempts at sovereignty and form.

    They are our wards we think to some extent

    For the time being and with their consent,

    To teach them how Democracy is meant.

Much more intriguing is Frost’s analysis of what it meant to be a colonial in “The Gift Outright.” There he describes early Americans as “Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,/ Possessed by what we now no more possessed” when it came to the land we worked but could not own. Even today, the complexity of the poem’s syntax, flashing back and forth between past and present, sums up much better the complexity of our historical identity than does “Dedication.”

Thirty-two years later, Maya Angelou was the next to have a crack at it for Bill Clinton. She also opted for landscape, giving us an almost child-like allegory in “On the Pulse of Morning”:

    I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree

    I am yours—your Passages have been paid.

    Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need

    For this bright morning dawning for you.

Angelou’s poem goes on for some 106 lines, cataloging races, nationalities, religious creeds, and sexual orientations, but its only overt political-historical thought occurs in the stanza that follows the two just quoted:

    History, despite its wrenching pain,

    Cannot be unlived, and if faced

    With courage, need not be lived again.

This kind of worrying of history also lies at the center of Miller Williams’ much shorter poem, “Of History and Hope,” written for Clinton’s second inaugural, though he strikes the collective note of the royal “we” with far deeper anxiety:

    But where are we going to be, and why, and who?

    The disenfranchised dead want to know.

    We meant to be the people we meant to be,

    to keep on going where we meant to go.

    But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how

    Except in the minds of those who will call it Now?

So much for bright hopes and new beginnings. Conscious of a divided country and Congress, much like we have now, Williams’ poem at least avoids the platitudes of confident endorsement that even Frost fell victim to, opting instead for the safer bet that “many people coming together/ cannot become one people falling apart,” though it is more wish than it is prescription.

The inaugural poem, as a genre, seems to be left bound and tied at the crossroads of pragmatism and optimism with history bearing down upon it. One is either left to sing the praises of how we got here, or to invoke a clarion call for where we need to go, knowing the first is highly mythical and the second likely impossible. Add the political moment and a national audience, and it’s no doubt a seductive mix, but one that almost by definition is doomed to little lasting success as a poem. For poetry does not do well with generalities, and instead seeks the pungent, telling detail. It feeds on particulars in order to invoke the general, and at its best, it will always give us a seemingly unique rendering of individual experience while deftly speaking to what our imaginations allow us to share.

This perhaps is why both of Barack Obama’s inaugural poets have reverted to Whitmanesque catalogues of occupations as a strategy to connect with their audience. In Elizabeth Alexander’s 2008 “Praise Song for the Day,” the poet notes:

    Someone is stitching up a hem, darning

    a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,

    repairing the things in need of repair.

    Someone is trying to make music somewhere,

    with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,

    with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

On Monday, Richard Blanco’s “One Today” followed in the same line by telling us of:

    One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk

    of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat

    and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills

    in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands

    digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands

    as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane

    so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

That Blanco brings himself into the poem would indeed seem a new twist, but even Frost’s thought in “Dedication” that “Today is for my cause a day of days” reveals a wily performer in the spotlight’s glow.

If there is a clear new trend, it would seem toward a mix of desperation and despair, for behind every call for “One ground” or “One sky” or a future “waiting for us to name it—together,” as Blanco has just given us, there is the shared awareness that, as a country, we hardly seem ready to embrace any one vision, much less one another. As Alexander’s poem reminded us, “In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,/ any thing can be made, any sentence begun,” but even she ended her poem with the humble wish to simply “[walk] forward in that light” as best we could.

And maybe that’s how it should be, or at least for inaugural poems. Rather than poems that succeed in their intricacy or surprise, it may be best to treat them as bellwethers of where we are at, or are not at, or need to be, or have failed to come. This requires that we read them as much for what they do not say, as what they do, and there is a semblance of poetry in that, though not one we will likely return to again and again. As Blanco reminds us toward the end of his poem, after such grand and historic occasions, “We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight/ of snow.” And it’s there, upon the page, in the soft light of a lamp in mid-winter, that more lasting poems—subtle, mysterious—mark their own occasions.

filkinsPeter Filkins is the author of The View We’re Granted, a collection of poems, published by the JHU Press.

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