Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hail to the Poetry

I don't do politics, but Obama won points with me a few weeks back when he announced that his friend, Elizabeth Alexander, would be reading a poem at his inauguration. I was unfamiliar with Alexander, so I did some research and tracked down a bit of her work. A Yale professor, Alexander is hardly a household name, but one of her five books of poetry was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and she has earned both NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. More significantly, she is a personal friend of our new commander-in-chief. My reaction to news of her commission was, "How neat for Obama to have a poet friend who can share in his celebration," along with my general delight that he chose to make poetry a part of this always (and, especially, this one) auspicious occasion.

Pickier powers than I, however, were not impressed. Staff writer George Packer voiced his disdain for Obama's choice in a recent online issue of the New Yorker. His dismissal of Alexander's work as "general," "self-consciously academic," and unlikely to "read well before an audience of millions" invoked the ire of Minneapolis poet and writer Terri Ford, who is the daughter of a good friend of my sister's. Had Terri's indignant response not been published, I would never have seen Packer's original comments; with my limited discretionary time, I choose to read poetry rather than the New Yorker. But because Terri's mother shared her daughter's fifteen minutes of fame with my sister, and because my sister sends all poetry-related things she encounters my way (bless her), I'm now annoyed with the guy myself.

According to Mr. Packer (who is not a poet, by the way), American poetry is "written by few people...read by few people...and lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings." Wow, tell us how you really feel. It's true enough that the audience for poetry is small; it is, however, significantly larger than it has been in many years. There is renewed, growing interest in poetry and, on any given day in major cities, one can very probably find at least one poetry event. The assertion that poetry is written by few people is blatantly false. Half the planet writes poetry--most of it bad. One is often, in fact, reluctant to admit to being a published poet because of the likelihood of being assaulted by unpublished (and justifiably so) poets in search of validation and encouragement.

But it is Packer's declaration that, on the rare occasion when poetry has been included in an inaugural celebration, it is because "the incoming President seemed to be claiming more for his arrival than he deserved, and to be doing it by pretending that poetry means more in American life than, alas, it does," that really peeved my participles. Perhaps those presidents who choose to include an inaugural poem have more culture than the rest--or greater grasp of decorum, or a better feel for posterity, or perhaps they simply had a fabulous English teacher who taught them to enjoy and appreciate poetry! The suggestion that an inaugural poem represents pomposity and is insignificant is both fatuous and insulting. Surely after the hours upon HOURS of campaign rhetoric we have endured, even a marginally entertaining poem is a welcome change and a fair reward for those of us who revere the power and beauty of the English language.

Packer has apologized for his remarks about Ms. Alexander, but his labeling of multiple generations of American poets as unskilled and uninspiring still stands. Gee, Packer, maybe you should broaden your reading material, because there's actually a fair amount of superb and stirring poetry out there. Could be that most poets have stopped wasting their time submitting to the New Yorker; onslaught, anyone?