Like four years ago, Obama's inauguration this year featured a poet laureate reading. I suppose I should be grateful that a national political figure features a poet at all, given that very few presidents use them. But, here I am as disappointed as I was four years ago. Like four years ago, the poet was selected to make a political statement. The minority status of the readers is transparently chosen for effect, rather than on the merit of their poetry. Surely, the voices of minority writers need more attention, but the poems in both cases were wholly about unity, community, and duty, yet lacked prosaic quality or even brilliant imagery, though I credit Richard Blanco, the later poet, with an ability to form an evocative metaphor, whereas Elizabeth Alexander, the former, could not.
This year's poem, "One Today," is almost an exact copy in spirit and word as the poem four years ago, "Praise song for the Day." If the titles seem very similar to you, that is because they are, and everything that could be said by one is said by the other. And what is said? Well, not a great deal.
- Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
is improved upon with a real object over an abstract one with the following:
- My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:.
Yes, Blanco's is better. But like Alexander, Richard goes on to list many things many people do or see in a day, drops in obvious references to schoolwork and labor, and steers clear of anything that would challenge an audience to think more than "one moon / like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop / and every window." In other words, either the poems riff off a national tragedy or the imagery is something that sounds deep, but really doesn't say very much at all.
I don't blame the poets. They likely support Obama and wouldn't want to say something during his inauguration that could be easily twisted into a volatile statement. I don't blame the event organizers, who were also working on the same strategy, increasing populist support for their leader. No, these poems of pablum and pleasant propaganda are for us, because this is the spirit of our time and people. Homogeneity and dullness are favored over brilliance or difference because these values have been twisted rather spectacularly by wedge politics. Most people would prefer not to be individuals right now because the most vocal free spirits of our society are the horribly misguided (to the point of mass murder) or very evil. It is visible as we recopy memes, quotes, and silly images on Facebook to entertain our friends, but say nothing for ourselves. These poems state that we are all more comfortable with a status quo, with a shared national grief, with being like everyone else, even though that is impossible. The overarching message is that we are all the same.
Now, I know most of us are the same on a biological level. There is very little separating the basic needs of any person from any other. And, indeed, originality is a hoax. However, difference is not. Most of us do not agree with one another. Most of us do not like the same stuff. Most of us love or hate our country for a vast variety of reasons. While I tire of the arguments bursting from the ill-informed electorate, I am not about to dismiss difference as valid or vital. I read the poetry of Sharon Olds, Ronald Bascombe, Henry Rollins, and Farid Matuk because of their difference. Their perspectives, illuminated by the skills of the respective poets, are not the same, and enrich our lives, and furthermore our nation, with each well-formed line. We are not of "One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk/ of corn, every head of wheat sown," but it appears that many of us want to be.
All I can do is wonder what the dissenters, the brilliant, and the different, who do not share this yearning for normalcy, can do now. Will an inaugural poem ever again ask more of those who hear it?
For comparison, I may reference Maya Angelou's inaugural poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," which really went for the brilliant heights over the pleasant middle.
- ...You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter...
- F. F. White