[originally published at the kenyon review blog, 1/24/13 ]
It must be strange for Americans to have a President who appreciates poetry since the arc of American culture bends towards the destruction of human dignity, which is the very source of poetry.
The recent inauguration and its displays of American decadence and corporate sponsorship have once again broadcast contemporary poetry across the diminishing national attention span. As we witnessed from Obama’s last inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, the poet’s task involves reaping the personal and professional benefits of national recognition, writing a cliché laden (and inauguration committee approved) poem, and performing that poem with less flair than the inaugural prayers, songs, or speeches.
Sadly, the task also involves steeling oneself against seething critiques and shameless praise from the insiders and outsiders of the poetry community.
Richard Blanco was a good choice for inaugural poet because he is a talented and thoughtful writer; I first read his work after reviewing The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (edited by Francisco Aragon, one of my the major driving forces behind for the new visibility of Latino poetry) back in 2007, and I immediately became a fan of his work. Blanco is also a good choice considering the record number of Latinos who were deported during Obama’s first term, as well as the administration’s unfulfilled promises to the gay community. Choosing a young poet also assured that Blanco was not likely to decline the invitation in protest, or to present a poem that would “rock the border”.
Why banish poets from the empire if empire can use poets towards its own ends? Use poets to wash over the empire’s crimes,use poets to feign respect for humanity, use poets to poeticize the ideology of empire. Blanco’s poem, “One Today”, is a poem of American exceptionalism and immigrant exceptionalism—of “one empire” built by many settlers on native lands. There it is, Mr. President, sitting there, for USE.
I confess that it was difficult for me to listen to “One Today”. How can you write about “fruit stands … begging our praise” without writing about NAFTA? How can you write about being rooted to “every stalk of corn” without talking about GMOs? How can you write about “routing pipes” without writing about the Keystone XL pipeline? How can you talk about “cutting sugarcane” without talking about the role of sugar and global trade in the war of 1898 between US and Spain, enlarging the US empire overseas? How can you muse about the “work of our hands” without talking about the unemployment rate? How will we head “home, always under one sky, our sky” when so many homes have been foreclosed, and so many futures, dispossessed?
The public attention that Obama has brought to poetry has led some to declare that poetry is dead. I think they are right. Poetry is dead because many Americans have sold their souls for the dream of capitalism, militarism, and colonialism—what Whitman called the “deformed democracy” of America. Unlike some of Blanco’s other poems, his “One Today” is a perfect poem to present to zombie Americans because it is a dead poem.
For many of us whose native homelands are occupied by America, poetry is one of the few things that keeps us alive. Poetry is our defense against tyranny. It should not be the poet’s role to lip sync the rhetoric of empire. The poet’s role is to challenge and question. The poets role is to inspire others towards dismantling empire so that a truly humane form of life can emerge.