What is it with Democratic inaugurations and poetry? Poetry and politics do not mix. Never have. One or the other never fully measures up to the task of the historic moment. Alexander the Great lamented that he did not have a Homer to record his epic deeds, while George Washington thought he had his in Joel Barlow. Who is Joel Barlow, you ask? Exactly my point. At this point in American history, we have two main circumstances where politics and poetry publicly collide: the presidentially appointed “Poet Laureate” and inaugural poetry readings. The former does little or nothing to any effect, and is an honor or a chore, depending on the poet. But the latter creates—as it did Tuesday when Elizabeth Alexander read her “Praise Song for the Day”—the largest audience for a poetry reading ever. And I mean ever—not only for the poet, obviously, but in the whole history of civilization.
The enormity of the occasion for poetry, however, does not necessarily pass on to the participants. Poets call this irony. Who can recall that Miller Williams read the last inauguration poem? (For Clinton in 1997.) The occasion did not affect much the career of the highly regarded yet nationally obscure Southern poet from Arkansas. Similarly, the literary reputations of the first two inauguration poets had already been cemented: the excellent Robert Frost (Kennedy’s in 1961) and the mediocre Maya Angelou (Clinton’s in 1993). For the poet, the good news is, you get to read a poem at the inauguration! The bad news is, you have to write a poem for the inauguration. In all four cases called upon by a Democratic president, each poet felt impelled to write a new poem for the occasion, an unenviable writing assignment. Not surprisingly, the resulting encomia have all been lame. Each inauguration poem, however competent or relevant, represents the best work of none of these authors.
Frost’s reading, interestingly, did not go as he planned, but not like you may have heard. Kennedy had actually requested him to read his already famous “The Gift Outright,” and audaciously asked him to shift the verb tense of the last line to make it more immediate to the occasion. Frost agreed and did so. But he had planned to frame this short poem, one of his greatest hits, with a larger dedicatory poem around it. Sometimes referred to as “Dedication,” this bit of bombastic hyperbole is what the snowy glare and wind mercifully prevented him from reading. Consider the overblown crescendo: “A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” So dreadful in comparison to Frost’s greater body of work, “Dedication” is rarely included in collections of his poetry. The net result: the poem Frost intended to read never was heard and the poem that was actually heard has never been read since. That Frost was already famous and the poem he wrote for the occasion has dimmed into obscurity, serves to prove that inaugurations do little for the poem or poet.
In fact, in no case did the incoming president really benefit his chosen poet, so the question is: did the poets benefit their presidents? Frost and Angelou—yes; Williams and Alexander—no. Frost was the only one of the four who was already as famous as the president himself. At age 87, Frost brought an august presence and high regard that the youthful Kennedy administration craved. Moreover, Frost himself recognized this and was eager to provide any gravitas he could. Angelou, despite her truly insipid paean to political correctness, provided a similar heft for the incoming Clinton administration. That an African-American poet could share such a stage with the president himself, no doubt contributed mightily to Toni Morrison’s later claim that Clinton was America’s first black president. Poets call this irony, too.
Which leaves us with Alexander’s poem for Obama. Her “Praise Song” has two chief virtues: brevity and … okay, maybe there is just one. Following Frost’s lead, she kept it short. But its single most important word is “sparkle,” which sums up her sentiment nicely: this sparkle, literally of “this winter air,” metaphorically signals “that light” which she also connects with the “mightiest word,” love. But the “sparkle” of this love and this light only tells us that it has no substance. The poem fizzles out with vague, meaningless abstraction. And this points to the basic problem with poetry and politics: the context imposes itself onto the poem and reduces it to the narrowest of meanings: Frost’s “golden age” can only refer to Kennedy, as here Alexander’s light and love and sparkle can only mean Obama. Such fawning obeisance is an exercise in vanity but hardly poetry. The question begged by all this flash without substance is: will it prove to be prophetic of the Obama presidency? This, too, would be ironic.