This is excellent good news that there will be an inaugural poem on January 20. The peaceful handing over of power every four (or eight) years is a miracle that really ought to be celebrated in verse. The trick, of course, is getting verse that rises to the occasion.
The poet of the moment will be Elizabeth Alexander of Yale (Boola, boola! Sorry, couldn’t resist). She is an appealing, unaffected and altogether becoming lady of 46, a professor, mother of two, an intimate friend of the P.E. (president-elect) and F.L.E (first lady-elect), and a one-woman Who’s Who of the African-American establishment. Her father was an advisor to Lyndon Johnson and secretary of the Army during Carter’s administration. Her mother teaches African-American history at George Washington University. Her brother was a senior advisor to the Obama campaign and serves on the transition. Zero degrees of separation there.
I’ve written speeches for politicians, but I cannot imagine the pressure of having to come up with poetry to be read aloud in front of everyone on the planet.
My hat is off to Professor Alexander. I’ve written speeches for politicians, but I cannot imagine the pressure of having to come up with deathless staves of poetry to be read aloud in front of more or less everyone on the planet. In the (extremely) unlikely event I should ever be called upon to poetize in such formal circumstances, you will find me curled up under my bed in the fetal position, surrounded by crumpled scraps of paper scrawled with There was a young man named Obama… Or, more likely, down at The White Horse Tavern trying to finish myself off à la Dylan Thomas, whose last recorded words, upon knocking back his 17th straight whisky were, “I believe that’s a record.”
Ms. Alexander is carrying this heavy mantle as if it were made of sheerest pashmina. She told Dwight Garner of the New York Times that she is “not overly nervous…. ‘By the time you are reading the poem, the real work has been done. If I ever get nervous before getting up to read, I look at the poem and say, “You’re done. All I have to do is let you out”.’”
That’s a lovely image. Michelangelo, who carved his poetry in marble, said that his sculptures were already there inside the stone—he merely set them free.
For inspiration, Alexander told another reporter for the Times that she has been thinking, amongst other sources of inspiration, of W.H. Auden’s “Musée Des Beaux Arts.” It’s one of Auden’s greatest poems, in which the speaker stands in front of Breughel’s painting, “Icarus.”
About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there must always be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood….
The record of poems read out at presidential inaugurations is a mixed one. As the Times reminded us, at JFK’s inaugural, the 88-year-old Robert Frost was blinded by sun and benumbed by cold, and thus couldn’t read the poem he had specially prepared, and valiantly dipped into memory, reciting his (actually superior) “The Gift Outright.” The best, perhaps, that could be said of Maya Angelou’s “On The Pulse of Morning,” given at Clinton’s first inaugural, was that it was a masterpiece of politically correct inclusivity, managing to flatter every ethnic and special interest group in the American quilt, with the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan-Americans.
The poem that stands out for me, and which so electrified me at the time that I can quote its last line from memory, was James Dickey’s “The Strength of Fields,” which he gave not at Carter’s swearing-in, but at the inaugural gala: My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.
I knew James Dickey slightly. I met him when I was fourteen years old. My father had taken me along with him to Cape Kennedy to watch the launch of Apollo 7. Dickey had been commissioned by Life magazine to write a poem about the occasion. (Man, those were the days—when magazines sent poets laureate to write about rocket launches.)
Dickey was kindly, loud, immense, tie-askew, gleamy-eyed and gloriously drunk—before noon. I remember thinking: Yes, that’s what a poet should look like. Poets should live hard, reach for the sun and die young. Well, that’s a romantic view, to be sure, and easy for me to say. Ms. Alexander has to cope with what Norman Mailer called “the impedimenta of life,” including raising two young children and picking up the groceries, to say nothing of inspiring Yalies in class. Still, one wants a poet to have … truly lived, no?
Clare Booth Luce was not a poetess, but after she converted to Roman Catholicism in her sixties, she was asked whom she would like to hear her first confession. She said, “Bring me someone who has seen the rise and fall of empires.”
Here’s wishing our P.E. (Poet-Elect) Alexander the best of luck. May the muse alight upon her brow and may the flood-tide of inspiration swell within her as she sharpens her quill.
Something tells me she was the right person for this job. In August of 1963, her parents took her, age one, to the same mall where her lines will be read aloud in January, in order to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounce some of the most immortal lines ever uttered on American soil. Indeed, as Auden noted how, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting, there always must be a young girl who did not specially want it to happen, sitting on her father’s shoulders by a reflecting pool at the edge of the wood.
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.