Obama's Poetry

The enterprising student journalists I advise at Occidental College in Los Angeles dug through old Oxy literary magazines to unearth two poems that Obama published in the spring of 1982.
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I pay less attention to what politicians say, more to how they say it. I'm looking for humanity, somewhere beneath layers of handlers and speechwriters and general hoopla - for fragility, for an indication that these folks and I share the same kind of DNA. Yes, policy stuff matters, too, but that's easier to grasp than humanity. What I'd really like to do is step back in time and chat with Barack and Hillary and the rest as teenagers, before the political machine filed down their rough edges.

I recently had the opportunity to do the next best thing. The enterprising student journalists I advise at Occidental College in Los Angeles - where Obama went before finishing his degree at Columbia - dug through old Oxy literary magazines to unearth two poems that Obama published in the spring of 1982. What better than the poetry of a 19-year-old college kid to unveil some inner workings of the grown man?

These poems have not been distributed, as far as I know, outside of the original lit mag and Occidental Weekly, and are worth including here in full. Weekly reporter Kevin Batton notes that the first poem, "Pop," "is a clearly autobiographical evocation of a moment between a very young Obama and... his maternal grandfather, with whom Barack lived for many years of his youth." The next poem, "Underground," is more difficult to decipher.

I have my own interpretations, but I'll save those for myself, or for another post. I'd certainly enjoy hearing yours. In the meantime, I've suggested to Kevin and other Weekly staffers that they keep actively reporting on Obama's tenure at Occidental. Of course, they make their own editorial decisions. As a reader, I'm not primarily interested in using these poems or other such remnants to support political agendas of the present. Rather, it's just deeply satisfying to penetrate the political force field and reinsert a modicum of humanness from a less circumspect past.

Here's the poetry:


Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken

In, sprinkled with ashes,

Pop switches channels, takes another

Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks

What to do with me, a green young man

Who fails to consider the

Flim and flam of the world, since

Things have been easy for me;

I stare hard at his face, a stare

That deflects off his brow;

I'm sure he's unaware of his

Dark, watery eyes, that

Glance in different directions,

And his slow, unwelcome twitches,

Fail to pass.

I listen, nod,

Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,

Beige T-shirt, yelling,

Yelling in his ears, that hang

With heavy lobes, but he's still telling

His joke, so I ask why

He's so unhappy, to which he replies...

But I don't care anymore, cause

He took too damn long, and from

Under my seat, I pull out the

Mirror I've been saving; I'm laughing,

Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face

To mine, as he grows small,

A spot in my brain, something

That may be squeezed out, like a

Watermelon seed between

Two fingers.

Pop takes another shot, neat,

Points out the same amber

Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine, and

Makes me smell his smell, coming

From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem

He wrote before his mother died,

Stands, shouts, and asks

For a hug, as I shink,* my

Arms barely reaching around

His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; 'cause

I see my face, framed within

Pop's black-framed glasses

And know he's laughing too.


Under water grottos, caverns

Filled with apes

That eat figs.

Stepping on the figs

That the apes

Eat, they crunch.

The apes howl, bare

Their fangs, dance,

Tumble in the

Rushing water,

Musty, wet pelts

Glistening in the blue.

* "Shink" may be a typo, but the poem is reproduced as published.

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