Opinion

Obama's poet

This time last year, on the snowy campaign trail in New Hampshire, Hillary Rodham Clinton took a swipe at her opponent Barack Obama with the quip, "You campaign with poetry, but you govern with prose."

As it turns out, the president-elect's first day of governing will include some poetry. Following in a tradition (of sorts) started by John F. Kennedy, who invited Robert Frost to write and recite a poem at his presidential inauguration, Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander, a 46-year-old poet, essayist, playwright and Yale professor, as his inaugural poet.

Alexander, who's known for blending historical and cultural themes into language described as both intellectual and jazz-inspired, was notified of her selection in mid-December. That gave her about a month to come up with something worthy of the occasion and accessible (or at least not mystifying) to the estimated 1.5 million people who will converge on the Capitol, and the billions who may watch and listen worldwide.

And you thought writing a toast for your friend's wedding was stressful.

Percy Bysshe Shelley concluded his 1821 essay, "A Defence of Poetry," with the oft-cited line "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." But what do acknowledged legislators know about poetry? In some cases, more than you'd think.

Bill Clinton, who chose Maya Angelou for his first inauguration and fellow Arkansan Miller Williams for his second, is an avid poetry reader. Three volumes of verse, including Seamus Heaney's "The Cure at Troy," a poetic translation of Sophocles' "Philoctetes," were on his list of favorite books compiled in 2003 for the opening of the Clinton Library.

George W. Bush, for his part, chose not to include a poet at his inaugurations, but Laura Bush may have inspired more poems than all the presidential administrations put together. In 2003, the first lady canceled a White House symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" when too many of the invited poets wrote works protesting the war in Iraq. The resulting firestorm gave birth to Poets Against the War, an archive of more than 20,000 antiwar poems, an anthology and several ancillary peace organizations.

But what of Obama and poetry? His gift for language probably has been remarked on with more frequency than his affinity for foreign or domestic policy, so it's no surprise that he opted for an inaugural poet. (Being a Democrat isn't the test; Lyndon Johnson is rumored to have told aides, "Don't bring me any poets," after one arrived at the White House and griped vociferously about Vietnam.) But why this one? Kennedy's selection of Frost had the trappings of a preppy love-fest, and Clinton's choices suggested sweeping populism (Angelou) and Southern esoterica (Williams). What does Alexander say about Obama?

Carol Muske-Dukes, the new poet laureate of California, calls Alexander "serious, grounded, immensely gifted" and an "entirely appropriate" poet for the occasion -- not least because she reflects a choice that seems personal and carefully considered rather than obvious or expected.

"They're saying this is not about laureates or rock-star poets," Muske-Dukes said. "They're saying this is the kind of poet and poetry we want speaking for us."

But what about the mood and sensibility of the nation? Would it be more "democratic" to feature, say, a rap artist? Or the ultimate symbol of democracy du jour, an "American Idol" winner? Mercifully, it seems not.

And as arcane as the genre has always felt to some, poetry happens to be enjoying a renaissance.

"Back in the 1970s, if you broke 1,000 copies, that was good," said Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. Not so these days. According to an editorial executive at Penguin, the sales tracker Bookscan (which generally captures only about 70% of sales) shows that Billy Collins' "Sailing Alone Around the Room" has sold about 220,000 copies; Robert Haas' "Time and Materials" has sold 13,650 copies; and Mary Oliver's "New and Selected Poems," from 2004, has sold more than 100,000 copies.

But in Swenson's view, poetry's popularity "goes beyond the sales issue. Americans want to connect not with poetry as a genre but with a single poem. People are looking for something that, without resorting to cliches, translates very powerful human feelings into powerful words."

And what might Elizabeth Alexander be thinking about now? Perhaps that inaugural phrase that applies to so many situations: "So help me God."

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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