January 20, 2009

Waxing Poetic

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January 20, 2008 may go down in history as the day we swore in our first black president, but there’s a good chance that today will mark another important historic milestone: namely, the largest crowd to ever hear a poem.
That’s right: with official predictions of inauguration-gawkers numbering in the millions, there will be a record-breaking quantity of ears around to take in the words of Elizabeth Alexander, an African-American professor of literature at Yale and Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet who has been tapped by Obama to read a special poem. Sharing the stage with other artistic luminaries like Yo-Yo Ma and Aretha Franklin, Alexander will have a chance to capture the ceremony’s theme, “A New Birth of Freedom,” in a few pithy lines.
With only three previous verse-readings in inauguration history, the “occasional poem”— a work written to commemorate a specific event — has fallen out of fashion since the days of the emperor-adulating Romans. Bill Clinton tried to bring the tradition back into fashion at his fêtes, but the resulting poems were roundly dismissed as boring. Of course, history has never been something to stand in the way of Obama, and the poetry reading will serve as a nod to the inauguration of our other non-WASP president, JFK, which featured an occasional poem by Robert Frost — or rather, should have. Following Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you …” speech, the aging poet was blinded by the sunlight coming of the snow on the Capitol steps and was unable to read his notes. He ended up reciting an old poem by memory — suggesting, perhaps, the futility of applying a timeless art to a timely occasion.
What with the millions of eager listeners on hand, it seems a sure thing that Alexander’s reading will go down as the poetic event of the season. But judging by the track record of presidential occasional poems, it’s a safe bet to say her words will be eclipsed by those of a certain other speaker sharing the stage. Poetry may last forever, but there’s only one Barack Obama.