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Inaugural Poets--Skeel

            After poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander was announced as the inaugural poet, fellow poet Paul Muldoon was quoted as saying he was confident the choice was due to literary merit.  I hope there was a twinkle in his eye when he said this.  Literary merit surely was one consideration, but one doesn't have to be a cynic to suspect it wasn't the only one. 

 

Inaugural poets, like other inaugural speakers, have always been chosen for symbolic reasons as well.  John F. Kennedy's choice of Robert Frost as the first inaugural poet was the closest to entirely merit based.  When John F. Kennedy chose him, Frost was something like our national poet.  He was beloved, had carefully tended his reputation as the people's poet, and was widely (though sometimes grudgingly) admired by other poets.  (The closest poet to this status today is probably Billy Collins, but he does not have Frost's status among fellow poets and does not seem quite so all- American).  Although Frost was an obvious pick, he also symbolized the old fashioned (implicitly Protestant) traditions of rural America, a constituency Kennedy wanted to reach.  Bill Clinton's choice of Maya Angelou in 1993 reinforced his sympathy for minorities, and 1997 Miller Williams represented homespun Arkansas wisdom--Clinton as a man of the people. 

 

A key attraction of Alexander to Obama, it seems to me, is that her poetry is intensely race conscious, but in a way that is less hostile to mainstream American culture and less anchored in grievance than the work of many of the best known black poets of the past generation.  She is, in a sense, a bridge between that past and post racial politicians like Obama himself.  (More on this, hopefully, in a follow up post on Alexander's poems once I've read more of it).

 

Two more thoughts on inaugural poetry. 

First, the three administrations that have included inaugural poets have all been Democrats.  For one who usually votes Republican, this pattern reinforces a depressing sense that the Republican party doesn't mesh especially well with the arts.  It certainly isn't inevitable that poets and other artists almost all lean Democratic.  Many of the titans of early twentieth century poetry--such as Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot--were quite conservative.  But despite a few efforts to the contrary, we seem to be in a period when conservatism and the arts don't mix so well.

 

Second, even if Democrats have a monopoly on the emerging tradition of inaugural poets so far, the tradition also seems peculiarly American.  In England, the poets who write for special occasions have always been the poet laureates, and they generally write for occasions that underscore England's history and traditions--anniversaries of the Queen's reign and the like (sometimes awkwardly, as when Ted Hughes with poet laureate).  In America, by contrast, we've only recently started naming poet laureates, and they don't regularly write poems for special occasions.  The inaugural poets are our closest equivalent to the British poet laureate.  Unlike their British counterparts, our public poets appear at the outset of a new administration (or new term), a time when we express hope for the future and try to suggest the improvements the new order will bring.  In America, commissioned poetry isn't really about the past.  It's really about a fresh start.

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