Friday, December 26, 2008

NYT Piece on Elizabeth Alexander

Dwight Garner of the Times Book Review interviews Elizabeth Alexander and muses on the inaugural poem in this recent piece.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Theft Outright, A Poem by Heid Erdrich

IN RESPONSE TO MY most recent post about Elizabeth Alexander and the role of the inaugural poet, my friend Heid Erdrich sent along a copy of a fairly recent poem of hers, which he has been gracious enough to let me post here. In truth, Heid's poem is a response to Robert Frost's famous inaugural poem, "The Gift Outright," read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. As I suggest in an earlier post, the poem is a swan song for the chauvinism and ethnocentrism of Manifest Destiny. Suffice it to say that when in the first line the speaker says, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he was not channeling Chief Seattle, Wovoka, or any person of color. Frost, frosty as they come, embodied whiteness.

Erdrich (Ojibwe) plays with Frost's line and its sentiment, inverting the poem's claim to land by invoking the transgressive history of land reclamation, removal, and theft.

A special thanks to Heid Erdrich and her publisher, Michigan State University Press, for allowing TWR to print "The Theft Outright" from Heid's forthcoming book, National Monuments.

The Theft Outright

after Frost

We were the land's before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.

Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

We were the land before we were people,

loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,

or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—

What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?

Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands

swimming being from women's hands, we originate,

originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.

Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,

possessed by what we now no more possess.

We were the land before we were people,

dreamy sunbeams where sun don't shine, so the stories go,

or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—

Dineh in documentaries scoff dna evidence off .

Th ey landed late, but canyons spoke them home.

Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don't know.

What's America, but the legend of Stop 'n' Go?

Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,

contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.

In any case we'd claim them, give them some place to stay.

Such as we were we gave most things outright

(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes

and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)

We were the land before we were a people,

earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,

or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—

Th e land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,

still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.

Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Elizabeth Alexander Selected as Inaugural Poet

IN "ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE," one of my favorite poems by Elizabeth Alexander--President Elect Barack Obama's choice to be his Inaugural Poet--we hear more than the echoes of past poets like Wallace Stevens and Langston Hughes or the words of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. We hear the soaring rhythms of Mr. Obama himself:

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

It's that final line that sounds so much like Obama. That desire for connection, that fundamental interest in the other.

But, so does the irreverent line about the dead dog. Alexander is a serious poet who doesn't take herself too seriously. One can say the same about Obama as a politician (just check out the header photo at SemiObama to get an idea of his willingness to poke fun at his persona).

But, there is nothing funny about this occasion.

How does one write a poem as momentus as the inauguration of the first African American president?

The presidency, like poetry, is a construct. It has its rules, its genres, its rituals, and its traditions. Being successful at both requires a knowledge of those traditions but not an allegiance to them.

It is that quality in Mr. Obama that no doubt prompted him to select Alexander to read his inaugural poem--the first time since Bill Clinton's second inauguration that event will include this bizarre but charming neo-tradition. Unlike many of Obama's cabinet choices, Alexander would not have appeared on many inaugural poet short lists--including those on this site. As much a scholar and an essayist as a poet, Alexander isn't really a central figure in what some refer to as "the poetry shirt crowd"--the central cast of poets who win awards, appear in The New Yorker and Poetry on a regular basis, and move in the main poetry circles. Her books are not published by the big New York publishers or the elite university presses; instead she goes with Graywolf, one of the best independent presses--one that focuses on quality over quantity.

A professor at Yale, Alexander has published four books of poems. Her most recent, American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It's a great book, full of jazz and popular culture references as well as riffs on the classic "ars poetica" (the art of poetry) genre in which she re-examines poetry through the lens of race and popular notions of race. This makes her an unusual candidate for such a big moment. How will she do? What tone will she take? Will her poem be funny? Earnest? Will its resonance be commensurate with that of the moment at hand?

Pundits have spent the last several weeks dissecting Mr. Obama's cabinet selections, musing over what they suggest about his presidency. Along those same lines, I'm interested in what his selection of the inaugural poet reveals.

I am impressed that he resisted the pressure to reappoint Maya Angelou or to go with more obvious choices like Nikki Giovanni, Yousef Komunyakaa, or Rita Dove, who served as the Poet Laureate. All three are outstanding writers, and all would write memorable poems. Of that, you can be sure.

Ms. Alexander is, in some ways, more risky.

The others have had a large stage. She has not. But, like Obama himself, she is a thinker. Her poems indicate someone inward-looking and nuanced. Someone thoughtful. Again, not unlike Obama.

I can say this--I'm more excited to see what kind of poem she will write than I would be by any of the three I mention above. The anticipation of her poem--like the anticipation of the Obama presidency--is that of the unknown . . .God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Conservatism Matures

TO THE SURPRISE, AND no doubt, dismay of many conservatives, Bill Kristol closes his November 17 column for The Weekly Standard, with earnest congratulations for Barack Obama and suggests, of all things, support:

We at The Weekly Standard congratulate Barack Obama on his impressive victory. We pledge our support for those of his policies we can support, our willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt in cases of uncertainty, and our constructive criticism and loyal opposition where we are compelled to differ. We hope President Obama's policies and decisions will strengthen the nation he will now lead, and that our country and the cause of freedom in the world will emerge from the next four or eight years even stronger than they are today.
Conservatism has always been more persuasive as an idea than a project, and to be sure, Kristoll is an idealist. Moreover, through a combination of economic extremis and a slightly more progressive American mainstream, intellectual conservatism finds itself in a tough place. Having been forced to hitch its wagon to the bigger, more powerful social conservative horse, it has been dragged around through the mud and muck, with no one of any real strength on the reins. But, social conservatism seems to have gone the way of the wagon, leaving more moderate conservative thinkers wandering around the trail, not sure where to go.

In the old days, most Republicans would take this opportunity to set Obama in opposition to mainstream America, but Obama's views pretty much mirror mainstream America. This makes things even more difficult for conservative idealogues. Kristol's stance signals a major shift in how intellectual conservatives see the immediate future. Perhaps their best hope is, ironically, in Obama.

The election of Obama solidifies America's move to the center. Many liberals claim the first Black president indicates a sharp move left, but, Obama is a centrist, and this past election (think Proposition 8 here in California) simply reinforces America's political (and social) middle of the roadness. More Americans probably agree with Kristol than Bill O'Reilly just as they likely find resonance with Keith Olberman more than Michael Moore.

One wonders, then, if Mr. Kristol's comments are more than a congratulation--perhaps they are also a valediction: a goodbye to the hate mongering of Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage; a farewell to the anti-Christian rhetoric of James Dobson and Jerry Falwell; a so long to the smug vacuousness of Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

Though they may never admit it, intellectual conservatism is, in actuality, a centrist stance. It tends to be agnostic on religious/moral issues, arguing instead for issues of public policy like smaller government, lower taxes, lighter regulations, and a stronger military. It's more about how government governs than how individuals make decisions.

Kristol's comments set him apart from those conservatives who are on a mission of conversion, revealing instead a man wooed by ideas--the very engine driving the Obama campaign.

We at The Weekly Rader congratulate William Kristol on his impressive column. We pledge our support for those of his ideas we can support, and our willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt in cases of uncertainty, and our constructive criticism and loyal opposition where we are compelled to differ. We are confident that in the next four or eight years, we may see him and Hillary Clinton giving each other the dap.