For the fourth time in modern history, a presidential inauguration ceremony will include an official poet. Barack Obama has tapped Yale African-American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander to compose an original poem for the historic occasion of welcoming America's first black president.
Inaugurations are high-minded occasions, ceremonies full of hope and idealism and a focus on the historic sweep of our country. A commemorative poem, especially a classic ode to America, sounds like a fine idea. But Team Obama wants something really contemporary. The cultural elite is taking credit for Obama's election, arguing the arts opened narrow American minds to the prospects of hope and change. Jeremy McCarter boasted in Newsweek: "Where did we Americans learn to be so uniquely broad-minded? In large part, from our artists."
The danger of a politician sponsoring official poetry composed just for the moment is the poem might fall flat under the weight of its own cockeyed self-importance. Many remember Maya Angelou in 1993 proclaiming in grandiloquent tones some nonsense about a river, a rock, and a tree. It was a flop. If the poem is too opaque, it will suggest to the millions watching on television that poetry is a high-faluting art best saved for gatherings of tenured professors and Ph.D. candidates, sipping their lattes.
In today's America, poetry is either high art or lowbrow commerce. It comes either from avant-garde poets, writing only for a snobbish elite and ignored by the broad public; or from commercial sources, assembly-line verses crammed into a Hallmark card, written for the masses and spurned by the tastemakers. In today's culture, the most popular poems are usually song lyrics, from rock anthems to rat-a-tat rap songs about the thug life. They're not the kind of poetry you read on marble platforms for presidents and Supreme Court justices.
Obama's pick of Professor Alexander of Yale fits comfortably into that snobbish elite, and worse yet, the Obama vetters did not seem to contemplate her appointment as a chance for people to become acquainted with her more outrageous work, especially one of her best-known poems, entitled "The Venus Hottentot." It caused Investor's Business Daily to warn about an "X-rated inauguration."
The poem reimagines the tale of Saartjie Baartman, a black South African woman who was put on display in the nude for curious European audiences at the turn of the 19th century. It's about black female exploitation and contains the line, "her genitalia will float inside a labeled pickling jar." And: "Since my own genitals are public I have made other parts private." And: "I am a black cutout against a captive blue sky, pivoting nude so the paying audience can view my naked buttocks." And: "In this newspaper lithograph, my buttocks are shown swollen and luminous as a planet."
The strangest passage concerns what this exploited woman expects a medical examiner to find inside her genitals: "Monsieur Cuvier investigates between my legs, poking, prodding, sure of his hypothesis. I half expect him to pull silk scarves from inside me, paper poppies, then a rabbit!"
These spit-take lines have been quoted and celebrated. In 1990, the New York Times published them and raved over them. Is it a surprise to anyone that Alexander was subsequently awarded a creative writing fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts?
Surely, she won't read a pickled private-parts poem at the inauguration. But her appointment hasn't produced one sliver of controversy. No what is deemed truly controversial is minister Rick Warren offering a brief prayer. His offense is his past, supporting California's Proposition 8, defining the word "marriage" as describing an opposite-sex union.
It's not only sex, but race, that offers controversy in this appointed poet. Obama's election was supposed to define a great thaw in our race relations. He isn't finding that sort of champion in Professor Alexander, who was written of modern America as a brutally racist place. She wrote that the Rodney King police-brutality case in 1991 was somehow akin to blacks in professional sports: "Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries," as she read from her own writing at Harvard last May - "from the public lynchings of yesterday to the basketball and boxing of today." In a sample of prose from her essays, Alexander observed in that same elite setting that "black thought and life rarely go uninterrupted by the violent gougings of racism."
On this historic day, when America might feel tempted to bouts of self-congratulation, we might be counseled to reject the narrow-minded idea that America has any greatness, and be invited to embrace in rhyming lines that most of us are violent, gouging racists. I can already feel the warmth and the harmony.