Friday, January 25, 2013

Inaugural poem - the poet was the significance

It's hard to write a poem for a president's inauguration. Poetry may not work all that well in this setting. Expectations are high - including the expectations for patriotic praise, nationalistic uplift, inspiration, reaching a mass audience.

So there's lots of critique of Richard Blanco's poem. Some of the lines were lovely, lyrical. 
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:

pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
Those last few lines were my favorites...

It was also perhaps too long. And the sun metaphor may have been too broad a reach for the narrow focus of this patriotic festival - as Carol Rumens pointed out in The Guardian: the sun shines also on the rest of the world.

One world, one humanity, but not one today, rather deeply troubled and violently fragmented.

We need to think bigger than ourselves - even on inauguration day, maybe especially on inauguration day. Much of the celebration was filled with a human-laden grandiosity that I found difficult to watch. At one point I remember thinking out loud, "My, we are full of ourselves, aren't we?"

"It might seem that the biggest problem with writing a public poem is that crude simplifications are forced on a reluctant poet," wrote Rumens, and I suppose that is true.

But, all that said, for me the real significance was in the choice of poet. It points to some stunning changes in the nation's culture - like the reality that the majority of us support gay marriage (a stunning reversal in just a few years), a ban on sale of assault rifles, the social safety net, and legalization of the undocumented living among us. We also think climate change ought to be urgently addressed and that taxes should be raised on wealth to support all sorts of public services, like public education.

We are changing - slowly, surely, some realities are breaking through, some truths about who we are in all our diversity. The pushback is extreme and well-funded, but it feels like a dying last ember, doesn't it.

The thing about an inaugural poem is that it is not the time to challenge the people who invited you to read it. So, what do we expect?

After the event, when we are back in the real world again, the time comes to challenge our re-elected president to not shirk from the necessity of change, profound change. We can write, for example, that he  has put himself in moral jeopardy by passionately proclaiming that we must begin to reverse climate change for the sake of future generations while poised to approve the Keystone Pipeline and other pipelines that will ensure the continuation of the most destructive industrial project on earth - the oil tar sands of northern Alberta. Writing ought to have a role in bringing us up against our moral contradictions, and then seeing through them to what is necessary if we humans are to have any hope of a culturally rich, meaning "ecologically" rich, future.

For me, writing matters most when it is offering a fiercely critical eye to the contradictions of the societies and cultures within which we live. It demands of the reader a different way of looking at things, a shift in perspective or vantage point, a new lens.

I enjoy other writing at times, but this is the writing that matters most to me.

In a previous post I was sharing the poem that started coming to me after reading an article about "hypersegregation" here in Milwaukee. Reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has lent a moral urgency to my work on this verse - hard to hold back. When you allow yourself to fully receive this reality - that we have locked up and disenfranchised millions of African-American males (and many women as well), and then watch the likes of Rand Paul, Eric Cantor, Lindsey Graham, etc., you get this sense that the sun doesn't really shine down on all of us equally and that we are hardly "One today."

President Obama has been utterly silent on the issue.
"They're coming."
                            That's what he said
before he took his mower and edger
and moved to New Berlin...

where there are no bus routes,
no trains, no public

so "they" can't get in

Chem-lawn each spring to
                                         kill the weeds
toxic against anything           out of place

Fences          gates         walls

      East Jerusalem
      Milwaukee and its suburbs

all sorts of ways to do it...

I'm still working on it, but even working on it creates a deep upset.

For my (sometimes, hopefully) paid work, I address the ecological crisis rapidly unfolding on our planet. I talk to all sorts of groups, do presentations, workshops, am now engaging with a group of others about opening some kind of space here in Milwaukee to look more deeply into what this will mean for all of us, in a world that chooses to ignore it pretty much altogether. And what I tell them is that "ecology" is about the interconnections of everything - everything - not just us and "nature," as if nature consists of those pretty trees, lakes, and mountains, and our enjoyment of them.

No, ecology is about the whole. And it is obvious as can be that hypersegregation is a lie and against the laws of nature. It does not exist in reality because everything we do has impacts all around us. We are never truly separate, and therefore the attempt causes nothing but suffering and injustice all along those interconnections.

Like the words of a poem, seeking connection, openings, a break with the logical mind which logic does not hold in the real world, or to bind together an image, a sensation, an insight we can hardly articulate...

I was thrilled to see Blanco on that podium. He seemed quite humbled to be there, truly moved, and his delivery was so simple. That's where the poetry was for me - a break with the past, with prejudice, with devaluing the "other," with preconceptions and presumptions that no longer hold.

We can use more of that. Actually, we are in desperate need of it.

Margaret Swedish

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