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OF POETRY AND POWER: REFLECTIONS ON THE INAUGURATION
A little over a year ago, at a house party in Harlem, through some fluke I ended up standing within 5 feet of Barack Hussein Obama as he delivered his stump speech. Close enough to note hangnails, blackheads. Close enough to watch single pores bead up with sweat in the hot room. Close enough that I could smell on his breath that he had been cheating on his no-smoking pledge. It was an unsettling feeling, this forced intimacy –like watching one’s parents share a sexual frisson – a “too much information” moment, even as I savored its briefness. Surely someone should put a stop to this, I thought, surely someone shouldn’t allow him to be this vulnerable, someone should impose the degree of distance conducive to worship. This was before he got his campaign legs under him – that untiring, relentless gait – when he was still allowing the exhaustion to show on his face, sometimes coupled with a look of mute suffering, as if to say, “How did I get myself into this?” Sometime afterwards I listened to Obama on a recording of his remarkably candid memoir Dreams from my Father, marveling at his sensitivity to eddies of interpersonal emotion –awkwardness, tenderness – at his sensory recall of slanted light on a dusty late afternoon road.
Then yesterday, we all watched the apotheosis of this man, concentric rings of power emanating from the terraces of the Capitol to the lawns of the Mall, past the Monument, past the Memorial, past the boundaries of the District to the nation and the world. We watched him emerge from his armored Cadillac for seven precious minutes – actually walking! on a street! – before being hustled back into the carapace of 8 inch thick steel and bulletproof glass. It was almost pitiable, a man whose fingers had grazed the surfaces of this world with such sensitivity now welded into a kind of bathyscope — the price of power. In his speech, when he called upon the nation to put “childish things” behind them, it was as if he were forbidding himself to mourn the world from which he had exiled himself — the spontaneous, the vulnerable, the dance with his wife that is not sliced up and doled out among ten different Official Inaugural Balls.
To set a poet on the stage beside the President marks the President as not-poet, the poet as not-President. We know that President Obama, like Lincoln, wrote poems as a young man, and during the campaign, Mario Cuomo’s quip “One campaigns in poetry but governs in prose,” was often deployed against this suspiciously eloquent candidate. But for the Inauguration, Obama, perhaps wisely, left the poetry to the professionals, and set himself to govern a realm of prose.
Elizabeth Alexander — fated to be anticlimactic after the toughest act to follow in modern history – wisely didn’t attempt to outdo the rhetoric of Obama’s soaring final words. Instead, she began her poem with an invocation of the quotidian, a catalogue of dailiness: “Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.” These small vignettes, for me, were the most effective lines in her poem, and exemplified one of her earlier Ars Poetica:
But a poem is a living thing
made by living creatures
(live voice in a small box)
and as life
it is all that can stand
up to violence.
Ars Poetica #1,002: Rally
I watched Elizabeth Alexander, as I had watched President Obama, on a Jumbotron set up on the southwest lawn of the Capitol. (The word Jumbotron – without comment and without definition – seems to have entered the American vocabulary in the past week.) The same voice was repeated in various waves – first the sound of the Jumbotron’s massive speakers, then, a half-second later, the actual amplified voice from the podium, weaker and thinner than its big-screen counterpart, then, a second later, ripples of additional Jumbotron echoes from various distances down the Mall. Such amplification, which had splendidly suited Obama’s baritone oratory, made Alexander’s voice seem, by contrast, small and wistful, a fish in an aquarium of bulletproof glass longing to return to the sea.
Monica Youn is a guest blogger on Harriet. She is the author of two collections of poems: IGNATZ (Four Way Books. forthcoming 2010) and BARTER (Graywolf Press 2003). She is Counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. She was a Obama pledged delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.