Thursday 30 April 2009

Obama Poetry: the Politician as Muse

Writers of all levels—Nobel Prize winners to primary school children—have responded to Barack Obama’s presidency by writing poetry. A quick internet search will immediately bring up already famous poems by Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Alexander, but also the work of thousands of lesser names from all over the world.*

Unsurprisingly, few poems have been written about Gordon Brown, and, even in the heady days of ‘97, rather few about Tony Blair. George W Bush pops up in some recent poems, mostly gloomy affairs about slaughtered Iraqi children. Maya Angelou may have written a poem for President Clinton’s inauguration, but thereafter Clinton’s literary legacy is restricted to a few amusing limericks. So why has a politician become the world’s muse?

A great deal of Obama Poetry takes language as its subject. In Elizabeth Alexander’s ‘Praise Song for the Day’, she writes:

We encounter each other in words, words
Spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
Words to consider, reconsider.

And again in ‘New Year, 2009’ by Gillian Clarke, the Welsh national poet:

Yet tonight, under the cold beauty
Of the moon and Venus, something like hope begins,
as if times can turn, the world change course,
as if truth can speak, good men come to power,
and words have meaning again.

George Bush failed language in two ways, the first, his Bushisms, by far the more forgivable. These were gleefully anthologised by his opponents and then recited endlessly, like a kind of joke book for the humourless.

It was the second failing that was pernicious. The Bush administration, like any ideologically charged regime, distorted language and meaning to serve its own ends. Bush’s legal evasions ensured that many of the most pressing issues of the period had to be argued on linguistic grounds: whether detained prisoners are to be treated as foreign citizens or ‘enemy combatants’, or whether ‘water-boarding’, an interrogation technique used by guards at Guantanamo Bay, is a form of ‘torture’. Bush threatened the education of our children by ‘poking around our libraries’, to use Obama’s words, and supported factions who abused the learning of previous generations to deny rights to the present generation: in state trials over the legality of gay marriage, dictionaries are frequently produced to prove that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman. Phrases like ‘War on Terror’ and ‘Axis of Evil’ have been derided in recent anti-war poetry, like Charles Bernstein’s ‘The Ballad of the Girly Man’ and John Ashbery’s ‘For Now’.  It is in this light that Gillian Clarke hopes for a time when ‘words have meaning again.’

Obama seems much friendlier to poetry—he has even been photographed with a collection by Derek Walcott under his arm. As a young man he wrote two poems, ‘Pop’ and ‘Underground’, which have now been widely published in the press. As poems they show little more than that, before being president, Obama was a teenager, but they do show that he was the kind of teenager who wrote poetry. He has written two well-received books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Most importantly, he is regarded as a great orator. Jay Parini even argued in the Guardian that his speeches are poetry. Reading Parini’s article (‘This speech moved me—as only real poetry does—on the deepest level’), it becomes clear that Parini means ‘poetry’ more as a compliment than as a category, but, nevertheless, part of Obama’s appeal is that he promises to accord to language a primacy and a purity it is felt to have lost.

Derek Walcott, in his two poems about Obama, focuses less on language and more on Obama’s symbolic value. In ‘Forty Acres’, he shows Obama as a slave who has come to take his place as President:

Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving—
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president

Bush, too, had his own symbolism. His rise to power seemed effortless—propelled by the weight of a great American dynasty. His constituency lay in the South with the prosperity of oil tycoons and the hostility of the religious right. Bush’s easy success was a reminder of America’s traditions of inequality and intolerance, and seemed to contradict the political destiny America promised itself in the Declaration of Independence.

Obama is from Hawaii, his father from Kenya. His mother is white, yes, but then so are all the other mothers of US presidents: Obama is black. That he has come from so far outside the normal spheres of American politics allows him to redeem American politics: it makes the hope for discontinuity more plausible. It is Obama as Redeemer that emerges from the poems. In Derek Walcott’s inauguration day poem, ‘The World is Waiting’, he imagines the inside of a barber-shop, and Obama’s election seems like a final realisation of American equality:

in the small barber-shop an election poster
joined another showing all the various hairstyles
available to his young black clients that cost the
same no matter who you were
—President of the U.S.—

In The Audacity of Hope Obama writes that he ‘[serves] as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,’ but if we see him through these poems, he is emphatically not a blank screen. He has come to represent the possibility of American redemption, the possibility of reclaiming the moral high ground— and he is valued by people, and poets, as a way to elevate their own views by associating them with him.

This goes some way to explain the disparate causes Obama’s election seems to have endorsed. Gillian Clarke ends her poem, ‘We are all in this together./ Ie Gallwn ni. (Yes, we can).’ And how does she explain her poem? ‘If you’re black, you can do it; if you’re a woman, you can do it; if you’re young, you can do it. And if you’re Welsh, we can do it.’ In ‘Plea to the Pres’, ‘Cowboy Poet’ Ted Newman, who does not seem an obvious Obamaniac, hopes that the president will bring an end to corporate excess and end the culture where leaders ‘mortgage children’s futures/ as they tax us to the grave.’ Perhaps this also explains something else most of these poems have in common: they are a bit safe. People who have the moral high ground are not so prone to introspection and are not so sensitive to ambiguity.

America has a president who inspires her and that is surely a good thing. But, with economic strife at home and never-ending wars abroad, the shine has started to fade from Obama’s presidency, and it is unlikely many poems will be written after his first hundred days. That is probably a good thing too. Leaders whose reputations are untarnished by their time in power are those whose realities have been overtaken by myth. On that list we can put Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and maybe someday Obama too. But now it’s time to scrutinise the budget.

*Obama Poetry Online: A poem a day for Obama’s first hundred days in office, mostly written by published poets and collected by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker Creative works by and about Obama Poems by Irish literary organisation Over the Edge in response to Obama A caring sister asks Yahoo! Answers for suggestions on how her nine year old brother can write a poem to Obama

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See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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