THE SNARE TRAP OF TRANSITIONAL MOMENTS | November 16th 2007
American leaders have a history of writing, and inspiring, poetry that is mediocre or just plain bad. Ariel Ramchandani encourages poets, and presidents, to do better when the next inauguration comes round ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
What is the relationship between poetry and the American presidency? According to the Library of Congress (or at least its website), the bond is strong. The muse of verse has visited the White House on several occasions. George Washington scribbled some wistful, angst-ridden love poems as a teenager (“From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone”), and Jimmy Carter published a complete volume in 1995 (“well meaning” and “mediocre”, sighed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times). Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the most melancholic president, wrote some rather morbid poetry: “O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince/That keepst the world in fear.”
George Bush has not published any poems himself, though many consider his unique turns of phrase—or “Bushisms”—to be pure poetic genius. To wit: “One has a stronger hand when there's more people playing your same cards.” Laura Bush once credited her husband with a metered poem that affectionately described her as a “lump in the bed”. But this bit of doggerel was ultimately attributed to a staffer, oddly enough.
Yet few poets have read at presidential inaugurations. When Robert Frost stood up to read at Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, the 87-year-old poet forewent reading his planned poem, “Dedication”, because the words were obscured by the glare of the harsh January sun. Instead he recited the more interesting poem “The Gift Outright”, in which Frost brings our attention to the snare trap of transitional moments. He speaks of the founding fathers as:
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Frost’s America is held fast by that double “possession”, only able to escape history by looking inward:
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realising westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
To Frost, it takes serious navigation and self-interrogation to extricate ourselves from the past and to strive to become storied, artful and enhanced. In our bloodied westward move across the grand frontier, we have become a nation.
Maya Angelou read a very different poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, but “On the Pulse of Morning” presents a variation on the theme of self-creation. Her subjects are less weighed down by history, more able to hungrily reach towards a new dawn. But the poem’s most vivid lines speak of looking inward and making radical changes as we move forward.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mould it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
An inauguration is a time of hope and introspection, when we look to the president as a reflection of ourselves. This reflection has not been kind, lately. I can’t help but think of “Paradise Motel”, an older poem by Charles Simic, America’s current Poet Laureate.
Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-cancelled postage stamp.
He continues, angry: “History licked the corners of its bloody mouth.”
Come January 2009, when we swear in our new president, we will hopefully be able to shake the image of a "twice-cancelled postage stamp". Perhaps, if a poet reads at the ceremony, the poem will help chart our escape from history’s "bloody mouth". The time between then and now should be interesting for poetry, among other things.