Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can't Decide Who to Vote For? It's all about the Inaugural Poem

AT PRESENT, THE MOST ubiquitous conversation in America is about the next Democratic presidential nominee. Almost every story on TV, in the news, and in the blogosphere advances a compelling reason to support either Senator Clinton or Obama. But, amidst all of the rationalization and speculation, even the most seasoned pundits dance around what everyone knows is the real determining factor for who the next president should be--whose candidacy would yield the best inaugural poem?

The most convincing evidence that George W. Bush was going to be a bad president was his decision to discontinue the use of the inaugural poem. When John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to write a poem for his inaugural celebration, Frost gave him "The Gift Outright." Granted, the poem is a bit of a chauvinistic paean to the tenets of Manifest Destiny, but it has its moments. Beyond the poem itself, though, is the symbolism. It made a statement. Linking poetry to the ceremony of the most important job in the world sends the message that poetry (and poets) are important. When Bush passed on this tradition, he sent the unintentional message that imagination and verbal proficiency were of little importance to him, lo and behold, how accurate that was.

The best indicator of Bill Clinton's promise as a leader was when he announced he would resuscitate the inaugural poem. Even better, his choice was Maya Angelou, an African American woman who in almost every way, was the antithesis of Frost. Her contribution, the much heralded, "On the Pulse of Morning," was more inclusive, more celebratory than Frost's. It remains one of American Poetry's best moments.

And so it is that pundits from Tim Russert to Rush Limbaugh to Keith Olberman to Katie Couric to Markos Moulitsas have been secretly discussing who each candidate will select to read the next inaugural poem. Las Vegas oddsmakers refuse to release their betting lines. Rumors have it that Li-Young Li, Adrienne Rich, and W. S. Merwin are near the top of the list, but no one will confirm.

My own hunch is that both candidates have already selected their respective poets. I heard the names had been leaked to The Drudge Report, but even he knows not to go public with such explosive information. Until something final happens, The Weekly Rader is your best outlet for this story.

So, the question is, who will the candidates select? Hillary Clinton, a candidate who respects traditions and institutions, will likely go with a prominent, storied, and vetted poet. Rich and Merwin are both strong possibilities but perhaps too left leaning. A more conservative choice would be John Ashbery, the most distinguished living American poet, and the only one I know of to write a poem about Popeye and rutabagas. Clearly, it would be hard to go wrong there. Alice Notley would be a great choice, but she now lives in Paris, so that won’t do. If Clinton is set on selecting a woman, her best option would be either Jorie Graham or fellow New Yorker Sharon Olds, but I don’t see that happening. She will want a man to put people at ease, and she’ll want to interject some levity into her ceremony. She’ll also pick a New York poet. That means . . .

Beloved by writers, academics, and cultural critics, Obama is under far more pressure to pick a cool, visionary poet for his inauguration. If Clinton is under the gun to tap a woman for this honor, then Obama is certainly feeling the heat to return an African American poet to the dais. But Obama is often all about defying expectations, changing traditions, and charting his own course, so for him, it is harder to speculate who he’ll pick. Nikki Giovanni, who survived the shootings at Virginia Tech, comes to mind right away as does Yusef Komunyakaa, one of America’s best poets. However, the Senator’s advisors will likely talk him out of picking anyone whose name has even the most remote trace of sounding Muslim. Terrance Hayes would be a surprising but smart choice. He is a fantastically talented poet, and he would appeal to the younger generations. It is possible Obama will pick an Anglo poet to downplay race. If so, his smartest option would be the beloved Robert Pinsky. There is no doubt Pinksy would write a memorable poem. But I predict that Senator Obama will want to honor the cultural contribution of African Americans and appease women at the same time by selecting an incredibly talented former Poet Laureate.

The Weekly Rader invites readers to leave their comments, suggestions, predictions, and nominees in the comments option below. Or, simply complete the poll in the right-hand column. I'll post the results here and on The Daily Kos.


  1. I read your post on Kos. I hope whoever wins picks Merwin. He's not on your list!

  2. Saw your blog on the Best of Blogs voting page. This is pretty cool. I love the inagural poet predictions. You need to get more people to vote!

  3. you may be jumping the gun, narrowing your choices to clinton and obama, but let's hope not. who do you think maccain will pick?

  4. Maya Angelou would be a natural choice. She is actively campaigning for Clinton--and she really is quite profound.