Inaugural Poems You May Have Missed

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 22 2013 6:02 PM

Inaugural Poems You May Have Missed

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Richard Blanco, right, is not the only poet who wrote verse for Obama's second inauguration.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A couple weeks ago, I wondered in this space whether Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco would be able to do the near-impossible: write a not-terrible inaugural poem for Barack Obama’s second swearing-in. How would he balance the demands of intimacy and universality? Could he be accessible and fresh at the same time? Would he manage to praise what is good and unique about the United States without seeming naïve, or propagandistic, or out-of-touch with a stormy past four years? (Also, would Blanco adhere to unwritten poetic law and close with an image of the moon floating in the sky? Spoiler alert: Yes.)

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Moon or no moon, though, people mostly warmed to “One Today,” Blanco’s 69-line lyric tour through our national geography and daily routines. Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie lurk in the poem’s shout-outs to the Smokies, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Sierras, the Appalachians, and in the simple but vivid descriptions of cornfields, coalmines, and city avenues. Men and women hustle among the landmarks, endlessly active, yawning in the mirror, driving to work, “weaving steel into bridges,” “routing pipes and cables,” “clean[ing] tables, read[ing] ledgers, sav[ing] lives.” It’s a verb-laden vision of America-as-ant-farm, elevated and bound together by the light of “one sun,” which completes its circuit as the poem unfurls, so that the inevitable moon at the end doesn’t grate much. In fact, that lunar messenger is a welcome arrival, putting a halt to the commotion and announcing a time for dreamy contemplation—of the past, maybe (Blanco movingly details the sacrifices his parents made “so I could write this poem”), but also of the future (the last few lines invite listeners to map and name a new constellation).

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So the poem holds together, which is great news for a piece of rhetoric designed to express national unity. This reader, at least, found it hopeful and warm and unpretentious. It fit the moment, alluding to both the Newton shootings and the Freedom Tower. And if the imagery didn’t feel bracingly new—if the imperatives (“breathe,” “hear,” “thank”) were a tad workshop-y—it at least strummed the right chords, like an old folk tune you don’t get tired of playing.

But “One Today” is not the only lyric giving the lie this week to our suspicion that inaugural poems are too tricky to pull off. On Monday, having commissioned six writers to commemorate Obama’s swearing-in, Yahoo News published five of the results. (More on the missing one in a bit.) Some of the poems, like Brenda Shaughnessy’s “To President Obama on his Second Inauguration,” have a joyous, shout-it-from-the-rooftops vibe. (“You’ve come so far, and you’ve far to go. You know/ the way, O”). Kevin Young’s pared down “Oath” celebrates the moment… cautiously. Other pieces are still more circumspect, even critical. Paul Muldoon offers the president friendly but pointed advice in a rhyming little dance that disguises its own seriousness. Among the issues he raises are “extreme rendition,” water boarding, the NRA’s “semi-automatic” response to gun violence, the debt ceiling, filibusters, and an obstructionist Congress. In general, he recommends:

Try to cut short
the urge to sort
out the world’s problems. As for “ground support,”
forget the far-flung lords and serfs
and take more care of our home turf.

Then, from James Tate, comes “Dear Mr. President,” a wry bit of Symbolist storytelling that addresses Blanco’s theme of unity from a different angle. Tate uses the surreal image of a man whose face is made of whirling leaves to show Americans ignoring and de-personalizing each other. Where Blanco’s citizens “open doors for each other all day,” Tate’s shove their oneness out of sight. “Have a great four years,” the poet concludes at the end of the allegory, presumably before buying a plane ticket to Canada.

“For a little glamour,” Yahoo News explains, “we included James Franco, the movie star, who has a book of poetry forthcoming from Graywolf Press.” File Franco’s contribution to the inaugural verse scrapbook, “Obama in Asheville,” under “head-scratcher.” The meandering, navel-gazing piece mostly processes Franco’s befuddlement at his assignment:

I was asked to write something
For the inauguration of his second term, but what could I write?
I was in Asheville, studying writing, but not the political sort;
I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing.

“That sort of thing,” in this case, includes Franco musing about winning an Oscar for portraying Obama in an imaginary movie. Then, thank God, it’s over. (The Observer has more in-depth analysis of the work.)

But what about that shadowy sixth poet? As the Poetry Foundation pointed out, Yahoo also approached Alien vs. Predator versifier Michael Robbins. But the angry quatrains he delivered—titled “To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward”—may have hit a bit too hard. Here’s a sample, from Robbins’ Tumblr:

Paging Pakistan and Yemen.
Calling all the drone-dead children. 
The camel can’t come to the phone.
This is for the drone-in-chief.
Mumbai used to be Bombay.
The bomb bay opens with a queef.

Robbins reports that Yahoo objected to his use of “queef” in the last line. But did the poem’s irate, protesting tone cause just as much pearl-clutching? (Update, Jan. 23, 2013: Chris Suellentrop, deputy editor of Yahoo News, says, “The reason the Michael Robbins poem wasn't included was because of language, not topic.”)

I wish Yahoo had included “To the Drone” with its other inaugural selections, if only because the verse reflects a patriotism that seems every bit as real as Blanco’s or Shaughnessy’s. And because, despite Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen,” occasional poems are among the few types of verse that get enough reach to possibly spark change. They seem precision-fitted to express outrage and grief, as well as hope or celebration. And Robbins didn’t end with the moon.