writers and statesmen redux: this time it’s poetry

Most everyone came around to the realization that George Packer was being a fool when he dismissed Obama’s decision to have poet Elizabeth Alexander compose and read a piece for the inauguration. For those still inclined to worry, there’s a whole nest of preconceptions about what poetry should be and what a public ceremony can be, and it all seems to come to the concern that poetry is going to come out of the whole affair somewhat the shabbier for it.

There’s the “most Americans do not appreciate poetry” argument,  but most Americans do not appreciate cellists either and no one has told Yo Yo Ma he should not play at the event (and while we’re on the subject most Americans do not care for politicians or long ceremonies anyway). There’s the notion that poetry is somehow being dragged out into the streets, away from the bedrooms and bookshelves where it ought to remain. That poetry is too frail and private for the gaudy publicity of politics. That for a poet to commemorate an occasion for a large group she must produce kitsch, because anything appropriately artistic and personal would perplex the listening masses.

The stereotype of the poet, even more than the novelist, is a hermetic introvert whose private world of symbols defies mass scrutiny. Insofar as this is true of Alexander, so what? Perhaps her poem will not speak to everyone who hears it. There’s nothing about public art that implies it should aspire to universality. But I take stronger objection to the idea that a poet cannot be of a social mind. As I said when defending novelists from much the same caricature, the best writers and the greatest statesmen must both be adept psychologists.  Their power comes in part from their proximity to the people they interact with, their intimate grasp of the details, symbols, impressions. Poets understand how the world works on the mind.

Though what I like best about Alexander is that she also understands how the mind can work on the world. To her, politics and poetry are both about imagination:

The way in which poetry models precise and mindful language is useful, because after all if we can’t be precise with language, how can we share ideas? Also the felicity of art … the way in which it makes you draw a breath and look at the world in a different way is very useful to the process of thinking through new solutions. You can look straight in front of you and never get any yield to a problem, but if you can look around the back of it or step to the side of it, those are the ways that we experience some movement with calcified problems.


~ by staticandme on January 15, 2009.

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