I'm a little surprised that the exhumation in the New York Times back in May of a pair of poems written by Barack Obama hasn't excited more twittering in the blog-po-sphere. Here they are...

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 shrink, 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.
These poems originally appeared in the Spring 1981 issue of the now-defunct student journal, Feast, from Occidental College.
In our chat with David Orr on the Poetry podcast about his essay, "The Politics of Poetry", Chris and David and I bantered a little about what kind of poetry you'd associate with either of the presidential candidates; I don't suppose the above illuminates the question much, but I find it reassuring that Obama started off writing the stuff we all scribbled when we took, as ernest fledglings, to the page. (I wonder whether McCain improvised any verses during his horrific confinement as a P.O.W. - I feel certain that he must have.)
I'm not poking fun at Obama's poetry, which would be a stupid thing to do (and his verse isn't - I say this with no condescension - unpromising, for student work). I suppose only that it illustrates how close and yet how far the poet is from the lines he or she writes at any given moment; saying so is, like evil, a banality. What I wonder, though, is this: would we have preferred Obama to have been a budding experimental poet, aspiring to the avant- or post-avant garde? I doubt it.
Michael Palmer has observed that "instead of critiquing the materialism, prevarications and repression of their culture," the work of oppositional poets too often can come "to seem a pure product of those cultures, exhibiting the same desires and the same emptiness. The terrible trap of sloganeering is that poetry can end up echoing that very discourse of power and control it sets out to resist." ("On Bei Dao")
More arrestingly:
"It is only among the less interesting artists that this question of 'the aesthetic vs. the political' becomes relevant, since there is no integration, only superposition." ("Poetry and Contingency")
There's a word to dwell on: superposition. The Presidency is a pretty super-position, too. One can always, in both poetry and politics, have the audacity to hope for more than sloganeering.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. July 31, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Speaking of surprises. The film Southland Tales wasn't given any serious consideration by poets as far as I can see. Did we miss the use of a 2008 presidential campaign ticket with Eliot/Frost as running mates? Surely that is fodder for some quality meditation? Or better yet, Justin Timberlake reciting a revision of "The Hollow Men" "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a whimper but a bang." Or the several allusion's to "The Road Not Taken" a way of sloganeering? Richard Kelly has brought all of the promise and genius of Frost and Eliot and the Modernist era of poetry and put it to good use in the medium of film. This is the most incisive, bone-crushingly honest and hilarious satires the world has seen since Juvenal sticking it to the Roman Empire.