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Parsing Obama’s Poetry as ‘One Massive Fraud’

By Harriet Staff

Over at Salon, writer Eric McHenry considers critic Jack Cashill’s obsession with Barack Obama’s college poetry. McHenry’s initial reflections on a poem called “Pop” are that “…it is shot through with clues that its author — Barack Obama — was not its author at all, that ‘Pop’ himself was its true author, and that ‘Pop’ was also, unbeknownst to its false author, its false author’s true father.” Huh? Well, he explains:

Barack Obama is the Rimbaud of American poetry. He was active only briefly, during his teenage years, after which he moved on to other pursuits and spoke dismissively of his underripe verses. Yet those youthful efforts have attracted a cult of devoted readers, many of whom showed no prior interest in poetry. And his tiny body of work — just three published poems — has inspired an enormous body of criticism, one that grows every time a new biography like David Maraniss’ “Barack Obama: The Story” brings the president’s juvenilia back to the public’s attention.

No critic has been more energetic than Jack Cashill, a blogger for AmericanThinker.com and WorldNetDaily and the author of “Deconstructing Obama: The Life, Loves, and Letters of America’s First Postmodern President.” Cashill is well-matched with his subject, because he is a postmodern critic. He may think of himself as an old-fashioned close reader of texts, but he’s a theory guy at heart — someone who applies a single big idea, like feminism or Marxism, to everything he reads. Cashill’s theory, specifically, is that “Obama’s entire life is one massive fraud,” and he looks at the president’s writings through that lens alone. Poetry is perfect for this line of literary inquiry because it’s so opaque and ambiguous, and therefore subject to limitless interpretation. Cashill has written that “Pop” is “arguably the Rosetta Stone of the Obama psyche.”

Like his fellow postmodernists, Cashill is capable of recognizing multiple and even mutually exclusive truths. When he first encountered Obama’s poetry back in 2008, he knew immediately that it was terrible. At the time, he was building his case that Bill Ayers (of Weather Underground infamy) was the true author of Obama’s celebrated memoir “Dreams From My Father,” and he was happy to have a few more bricks for that argument’s foundation. Surely, no one who wrote bad poetry as a college sophomore could produce a book of polished, thoughtful prose just 15 years later. “Obama had composed what he calls some ‘very bad poetry,’ and he does not sell himself short…,” Cashill wrote. “These poems [‘Pop’ and ‘Underground’] are only a little sillier than the average undergraduate’s, but they show not a glint of promise.”

By 2010, though, Cashill was pursuing a more ambitious theory, and it required him to reevaluate the poems. He now believed that Obama had been a literary fraud from the beginning and that the actual author of “Pop” was Frank Marshall Davis, a significant poet and journalist who had been a sort of godfather figure to Obama during his childhood in Hawaii. Like many other black intellectuals of his generation, Davis had at one time been a communist. He had also written, pseudonymously, a book of pornographic prose in the late 1960s. Needless to say, the prospect of proving that Obama was a serial borrower from better writers who also happened to be unrepentant bombers, communists and pornographers touched several of Cashill’s pleasure centers at once.

By great good fortune, when Cashill took a second look at “Pop,” he discovered that it was in fact an excellent poem — far too excellent to have been written by Obama. “This is more hunch than science,” he wrote, “but I suspect that as a reward for the young Obama’s friendship, Davis may well have slipped this ‘green young man’ a poem or two for publication. Nowhere else in his unaided oeuvre, such as it is, does Obama show the language control he does in ‘Pop.’ Such an everyday scam would not have seemed unethical to an old Communist.”

Cashill compared “Pop” and an even earlier poem from Obama’s high school literary magazine with a late Davis lyric, and he found the old poet’s fingerprints all over the young man’s work: “All three poems show a comparable sophistication in language and structure. Written in free verse, each makes ready use of what is called ‘enjambment’ — that, [Cashill’s comma] is the abrupt continuation of a sentence from one line into the next.”

Cashill knows just enough about poetry to help people who know nothing about poetry come to a proper misunderstanding of it….

Read the full piece here.

Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, July 18th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.