Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Political Poetry

I didn't see the Inaugural, but afterward I did watch Richard Blanco's reading of his very prose-y and maudlin "One Today". There's a good sense of color in the poem, but it's drowned out by what used to be called 'excess verbiage'. There's a fairly straightforward test for this, at least for poems of this length and style: take away all the line breaks, and read the poem as if it were a speech. If it is in good shape, it should read in a very vivid, punchy way, so that you can genuinely say that if you cut it down any more you would lose something important. Take, for instance the first sentence:

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.

Now, this is actually a very good opening image, vividly expressed, and one of the problems with the poem is that it does not keep this image before us the whole time. But it's also clear enough that this is a bit of jumble of things that could be slimmed down. How important is it, for instance, to talk about 'the faces' of the Great Lakes? They are never mentioned again, and the relation between these 'faces' and the other faces mentioned in the poem is left entirely unclear. Why is it important that the truth spread across the Great Plains be a 'simple' truth? And, again, we never see it again, so don't know what it is. Is unity-in-diversity, which most of the poem is about, this 'simple' truth'? And what's the significance of the series kindled-peeking-greeting-spreading-charging as the sun goes from East to West? There doesn't seem to be anything unifying the series.

Or take another sentence, one of the stonger ones:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise.

We have an excellent beginning here -- "My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors" is very good, linking repetition and alliteration but sticking with the point. What does it mean, however, for millions of yawning faces to crescendo into day? And what does "crescendoing into our day" have to do with the very color-heavy list that follows? Something like "sparking the day into color" would work better with the "pencil-yellow school buses" (an excellent phrase) and the following. "The rhythm of traffic lights" doesn't draw out the color of traffic lights in the way it should; even just saying something like "the red-yellow-green of traffic lights" would do better. And the apples, limes, and oranges being "arrayed" doesn't give us any useful information. In a poem with strict meter, rhyme, or some other scheme, "begging our praise" might be an essential contributor, but, again, why is it important to think of the rainbows at fruit stands "begging our praise"? Praising the colors of fruit is not a common human activity; it needs to be given some grounding in the poem. In principle you could connect it with the poetry mentioned in the next sentence, but the shift in person from "begging our praise" to "I could write this poem" is jarring.

There are other issues with the poem; it is purportedly about us, as one nation, but Blanco goes out of his way to mention himself in particular four times. Only one of these, at least as written, melds well with the togetherness theme: yet one more way in which good images are weakened by wordiness.

Political poetry is very difficult to write; it tends easily to both the pompous and the maudlin. Robert Frost wrote a (rather weak) Inaugural Poem, but instead just recited "The Gift Outright," which Kennedy had specifically requested, and to which his new poem was supposed to have been the introduction. Because of this he is the only one of the four poets to read at an Inauguration who actually managed to give a very good Inaugural Poem. His was 16 lines, and conveys vastly more than Blanco's 69 lines. Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of Morning", which was given at Clinton's first inauguration, is probably a very distant second. It is a completely baffling poem, and its relevance to the occasion is left obscure, but the steady tumble of images manages to avoid most of the obvious problems of extended free verse. Miller Williams wisely avoided free verse in favor of a stricter poetic structure in "Of History and Hope", but the poem ends up being lackluster and forgettable in a way that Angelou's wasn't. It was stronger than Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle", however.

There's a reason most good political poetry -- Phyllis Wheatley's poem on George Washington, for instance, or Romantic poems about Napoleon -- is spontaneous and not written for occasion. Poets are not dancing ponies; they do not perform tricks on command. But the major problem that these poems have is that they are promiscuous: they don't capture a perfect image or series of images, but constantly have to grab at things to make the whole thing work. This can be done, if you're Shakespeare or something, but you need an unusually clear vision to do it. You have only to set Blanco's, Alexander's, Williams's, or Angelou's poems beside Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again" to see how bland and flabby they are by comparison.

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