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America's Most Prominent Emerging Poets Respond to the Obama Administration

Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg asked one hundred of the best-known emerging American poets to respond with a poem for each of Obama's first 100 days. The resulting anthology is very revealing.
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Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg asked one hundred of the best-known emerging American poets to respond with a poem for each of Obama's first 100 days. Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days (University of Iowa Press, 2010) is the result, and the anthology is very revealing. Typically, American poets avoid going anywhere near politics, but when they do occasionally feel compelled to venture into that arena, the efforts are strained and a bit desperate, as though they were quite out of their element. So did the onset of the Obama administration, after the dark Bush years, let loose some new vein of creativity among our poets? Did they break through the existing molds, or does the excitement of politics in the end fail to compete with the usual stuff our poets tend to write about?

The first thing to note is the overwhelming uniformity of the political ideology behind these poems. Among these 100 stars, there is hardly a poet who reveals himself/herself to adhere to anything other than a strict middle-of-the-road Democratic politics--the mildest of liberal correctionism in response to the Bush agonies. There's not a Republican, not a conservative, not a libertarian, not a radical of any sort here, as far as I can tell; there isn't a socialist, an anarchist, a revolutionary, any sort of agitator in evidence, anything different than what you might expect from a bunch of Democratic party functionaries solemnly penning the party platform. There's not even a Ralph Nader lover among the bunch, let alone a Rosa Luxemburg or Emma Goldman devotee.

One doesn't need to be a socialist to have street cred as a political poet; but one needs a fighting spirit, a disrespect for authority, an abiding skepticism that presumes all officialspeak as bullshit from the word go. So there is a variety of styles here, from the slightly experimental to the fashionably experimental, but there isn't anything like true diversity of political beliefs and aesthetics. The Age of Auden or Ginsberg, this isn't.

The editors hope in their introduction to have avoided 100 Elizabeth Alexander-type inaugural poems, but in essence that's what they got. True, as the 100 days go by, the unalloyed hope of the poets suffers slight erosion--but even by the end it's a very hopeful response, one very much in tune with majority feeling in the country by Day 100. There isn't a strong voice, relishing minority status, that really sticks out. The voters behaved like a herd in responding to the empty message of hope and change--substituting for any coherent political philosophy--and like kindergarteners soaking up such fables, so did the poets.

Rita Dove gushes in her Foreword: "The first one hundred days of a new era: one hundred breaths of fresh air after nearly three thousand days of staleness. One hundred days and counting. And though a hundred days are nothing like a decade and nowhere near a century, the world can change in a few months, in a few days, in an instant. Suddenly, there's a frisson in the air--risible, catching--and to our amazement turning into a new reality. Since November 2008, passersby do their passing with eyes sparkling, a smile tugging at the cautionary mask. Can you see it? A twitch. A twinkle. Clustered strangers and spontaneous smiles, short bursts of laughter. Spirits lifted even as the markets crash." Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg echo this spirit: "If we were to pick out a common thread [in this book], would echo our president's message of personal responsibility, of loving this country enough to expect a great deal of it, and of having the courage to be hopeful." A more complete negation of political philosophy was rarely uttered.

Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day," the inaugural poem, presumes as fait accompli a political destiny which hasn't even come close to being realized: "Say it plain: that many have died for this day." And what exactly did they die for? That a black man should become president? But what if that black man were a tyrant in the vein of George W. Bush, with little respect for the rule of law or constitutional protocols? Just supposing... Would it still be the day so many have died for? The New Agey stuff piles on: "What if the mightiest word is love?" The poem concludes as a "praise song for walking forward in that light." The mightiest problem of politics is power. Love has little to do with it. To interpret politics as a problem of love is to be in a very infantile position indeed. Later, Cornelius Eady, in "Praise for the Inaugural Poet, January, 2009," on Day 14, praises the one who praises: "A black woman is here. / All the black women in her are here to sing." Or yodel? As BJ Soloy says in "Last Migration, a Dead, Common Yellow-" on Day 17, "Still, / on election night, // I felt an urge to yodel. I livened up."

Matthew Rohrer on Day 2, in "Poem," exclaims: "I know / it's hard to believe but / the new president said science." That's a pretty low bar for a president to meet, isn't it? An even lower bar is for the president to just smile. Diane Wald writes in "Nonromantic Obama Valentine for America, February 14, 2009," on Day 27: "for our president / is smiling. // just a man. / openly smiling." He hasn't been smiling much lately, has he? Wald concludes: "we can smile again in america and now at least we have / a person in the white house who knows honestly how to do it." Similarly, Martha Silano echoes, in "His Springboard Resolve" on Day 3: "From this day forward, a little less fetus, a lot more science." Yvette Thomas, in "Missing Metaphor for Time," on Day 6, concludes the poem with "Change is." And I say, exactly: the sentence is unfinished; change is what? It's anything and nothing. Lyn Lifshin's "Michelle's Citrine Dress" on Day 8 is more of the same, responding to the media persona built up for Michelle (who cares what she wears or doesn't wear?): "I think of / tulips when I think of / that dress." I think of intellectual bankruptcy.

The urge for identification--as with all stars--is overwhelming. On Day 11, Leslea Newman in "Prayer for a President" says: "And just for a moment / she was just a woman / in a fancy white dress / dancing with her husband / and just for a moment / he was just a man / in a crisp black tuxedo / dancing with his wife." No, they're not just husband and wife, he's the leader of the free world, as they like to say on the talk shows. Newman prays: "keep them safe / keep them safe / keep them safe" (thrice will do it?). Rebecca Wolff asks, in "The Most Famous Man in the World," on Day 12: "Are you like me / jug ears / of purpose / defined positively / by your positive / action and the clear vision / toward a common // sense?" And later, "I / feel you. You feel / me." Cole Swensen, in "Taking Cover under the Sun" on Day 18 wonders "what it feels like to know / that approximately half the world has a crush on your husband." Jeanne Marie Beaumont remarks, in "Rite (to Forge Amor for an Orphan)," on Day 78: "Let all that thrives in air conspire to keep you safe, / and character be wrought six-fold."

Well, if we insist hard enough, maybe Obama will become true. That's John Paul O'Connor's wish in "New Time Old Time" on Day 10: "O, Obama, be not the chosen, but the unchosen / of the unchosen revolution, not around the corner / but here on St. Nicholas Avenue where the swollen tribes / of unchosen are chanting, Africa come home, and raising / their sunbroad arms to demand you be what they believe / you are." On Day 9, Sasha Steensen is talking about emotions unfreezing, in "Wintry Weather and Job Slaughter": "hope / isn't eight times hotter / this time of year / just eight times / over / and melting / what? / fear?"

Children are taught in shades of black-and-white--at least by tyrannous parents. So Republicans (Bush) bad, Democrats (Obama) good; that's the reigning formulation. Shift the blame (it's fantastic that the politically correct academy has no problems tainting everyone except those of the Democratic persuasion as being the "other"). Marvin Bell, in "The Book of the Dead Man (Day 51)," establishes this binary division: "The dead man has been newly roused by a president of many colors. / There has been a worldwide lifting of downcast eyes for good reason. / The fog has lifted that hid the systemic violations of law, and the dead man feels the ground shifting. / Now the indigent can hope for more than weeping. / For America was ambushed by the vile and the wicked. / Quickly, it was midnight in America, and the chuckle-heads were in charge." What David Axelrod told us from the pulpit, about Obama being the new uniter, is swallowed whole and repeated by Patricia Carlin, in "Thinking My Way Out of a Paper Bag," on Day 79: "No more With or / Against, Black or / White."

The American workshop poem tends to follow a certain pattern. Some narration, some private feelings, ending with a slight epiphany. It's striking that the Obama poems have fallen so neatly into this established schematic. Just as the workshop poem typically ends in a glimmer of hope, so does the Obama poem. Cin Salach's "The First Easter, 2009," on Day 84, concludes: "That is how I feel when I walk / in the world now. My palms are up. Open. / This is what I want to tell you." In a way, the American workshop poem has become generally a form of religious expression, in the structure it follows (every crucifixion-confession must have a resurrection-redemption). Politics under Obama is also a form of religion--although an exceptionally childish one, even as religions go.

It would be unfair to discuss this book without the bright spots--of restrained hope, subdued excitement, and guarded skepticism. Michael Dumanis, in "Occasionally, I Write a Poem," on Day 21, concludes warily: "I have nothing to say about the president." Bravo! Perhaps more of these poets should have had nothing to say about the new president. One of the strongest poems, Major Jackson's "A General Theory of Interest & Money or Getting the Country in Bed," on Day 22, has just the right tone; Jackson is not taken in by the hoopla at all. He concludes the poem: "You must strong pitch the rich on Capitol Hill / to support the applause of your Senate Bill." There's a bit of Ezra Pound's ornery materialism here. Money is where the game begins and starts, not love--not when it comes to presidential politics.

Brian Teare's "Citizen Strophes (Oakland)," on Day 29 is very good too: "All I know is // he's so depressed he's / me: lovelorn, jobless, a lot of uninsured trouble // with teeth and vision, as in: / sidewalks seem longer // under construction in midday sun," and later, "he's thinking there's no way / the city's going to beget tenderness / anytime today." Katy Lederer strikes a more moderate skeptical note, in "I Think You Are a Good Manager," on Day 30, asking: "Are you willing to be / more political, to learn how // to influence? / Have you thought about // confronting M.?" This is a variation of hope, however; the issue is not having a forceful personality, but the power interests the office of the president serves--and that has nothing do with lacking or not lacking a spine.

Another excellent poem is Joyelle McSweeney's "Poem for Comrade Duch," on Day 31: "In the box is the fetid dictator / Going south in his agebox / Going south in his box of hair / The body of judgment has been assembled / And has been disabled by the war on terror / And is a disabled box / In the box the choices are limitless / In the box the choices are meaningless." This is an appropriate commentary on the vacuity of postmodern politics, where everything fits into everything else, where ideology has given way to infinite promise and perpetual satisfaction. I like Elizabeth Scanlon's mockery of "choice" in a similar vein, in "What People Say" on Day 33: "The commander-in-chief has, in his first act as such, / authorized 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan / and Karzai's spokesman says 'We have opened a new page.' / We have paged a new open we have known an open page."

Deconstructing the language of politics works really well for Jen Hofer too, in her poem written on Day 85, with the impossibly disassembled title. Political language is utterly debased; to construct narratives of hope (or of any emotion whatsoever) from the ruined language is foolishness. Hofer's collection of words shows how anything belongs next to each other, which is to say that nothing belongs next to each other; a sample: "summit leaders relations government the case the president / momentum change policies decision a departure / administrations tightrope wages allies pay help governor / mayor speech a challenge the tenure a gap the budget."

Brenda Hillman comes excellently through the Obama hope morass. In "Guilt Armada," on Day 98, she says: "Do presidents get stoned on power or what. Give him time, say my friends. Even the people crouching in the Shadow Banks & changing their shadows in shadowy corners say Give him time." Toward the end, she says: "Look behind or you might back up over the neighbor's cat. I don't feel like looking forward. I want my heart not to stop again. I want to look back at the women crouching in their houses." Hillman addresses a constant refrain among Obama's defenders. Time? Why should we give him more time? Why should we look forward (past the crimes)?

If there's anything more fun than taking apart a workshop poem, it's to read the blurbs poets are sometimes expected to extemporize, to justify/apologize for/self-deprecatingly praise/preemptively neuter their own poetry. So the explanations by each poet at the end of the book are completely consistent with the poems themselves; again, even in the blurbs there's not a threatening radical among them, not a glimmer of revolutionary angst, or even simple anger.

Very typical of the blurbs is Becca Klaver's note, which conveys well the self-righteous unaccountability of her generation, a very American sort of entitlement, as though nasty, terrible things were being done in the dark political realm, but hey, they were young then, and we can't really expect too much now either, because those bastards left an ugly mess: "People my age graduated from high school the spring of the Columbine Massacre, were in college on September 11, 2001, have seen the war in Iraq drag on and on, and now are starting careers (or exiting them due to layoffs) in the midst of a recession. After growing up in the seemingly carefree 90s, we're trying to grapple with the world in which we've become adults. If not for Obama and his rousing calls for hope, my generation might not feel motivated to help clean up; on the other hand, that hope coexists with indignation over the mess we've been handed. Like the words 'earnest' and 'pissed' in the poem, these feelings sit side by side, almost rhyming but ultimately irreconcilable."

Oh, what terrible sufferings this generation has gone through! This classroom boilerplate pep talk to self (minus any sense of historical responsibility) is okay for consumption by a dull visiting dignitary, but a poet addressing fellow poets and poetically-inclined readers? Dear younger poetry generation, perhaps your father or uncle worked in the defense industry these last ten warmaking years; perhaps you got a relatively free higher education because empire has built up excess capital by making wars, and you're the direct beneficiary; dear poet, where do you think your cozy suburban privileges and urban fun come from?

Perhaps if the same poets had been asked to respond to Obama after the end of the first year, they would have been more skeptical. But I don't think so. Let me throw out a radical thought: perhaps these prayers for safety, these thrills at Obama's articulation, these hosannas to his smile and his beautiful, normal wife are a sanctioned, politically correct form of racism. He's our child prince, our dark savior, and we are benevolently, patiently watching over him, hoping for his success, because to criticize him would be so awful... Nah, it doesn't even get that complicated. This is just how American poets write political poetry.

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