A Moment for Poetry at the White House

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Walt Whitman, the great bard of the American experiment and Levi’s jeans, never performed at the White House. (He was fired, instead, from his job at the Department of the Interior after his boss objected to the moral content of his writings.) But that didn’t keep him from admiring from afar what he called “the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon.” On Wednesday night, “future poems” will be read from within the building’s walls, as President Obama and the first lady host an evening of poetry and prose.

The Obamas are bringing in many of the biggest stars in American poetry, which is a bit like hosting the greatest players in professional Lacrosse. Though poetry has always played a central role in telling the national story, it lacks popular outlets, save the occasional commercial appropriation, the glancing quote or the acrobatic stylings of the nation’s hip hop artists. A blockbuster book of poetry will sell maybe 25,000 copies in a year. By contrast, Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice tends to get more than 7 million viewers each week, and the last Harry Potter book sold 15 million copies in a day.

So let us all pause to praise the poets, who, as Wordsworth wote, recollect in tranquility the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” to tell us all what is happening. The event will be streamed live at 7:10 p.m., but if you don’t want to wait for a taste, here is a brief overview of some of the poets who are expected to read.

Elizabeth Alexander: Born in Harlem, raised in Washington, D.C., she is a professor at Yale University and the author of the original poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, “Praise Song of the Day,” which included the lines, “In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air/any thing can be made, any sentence begun./On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,/praise song for walking forward in that light.” But that was just a job for hire. Some of her best work is far more personal, like her long poem on pregnancy and birth, Neonatology, with lines like, “Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence, then all of it.”

Billy Collins: A former poet laureate of the United States, he teaches at Lehman College in the Bronx, and read his poem, “The Names,” before a joint session of Congress in 2002, meant to commemorate the attacks of September 11. An excerpt:

Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Collins latest book, Horoscopes for the Dead, is the fifth best seller on Amazon’s poetry list.

Rita Dove: Another former poet laureate from the early 1990s, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and teaches at the University of Virginia. In the late, 1990s she wrote a book called “On The Bus With Rosa Parks” that included this description of the civil rights activist: “How she sat there/the time right inside a place/so wrong it was ready.” Dove has previously read at the White House, a poem called “Parsley,” about the massacre of roughly 20,000 Haitians by the dictator Rafael Trujilo. “It was an after-dinner event, and when I introduced the poem there was a moment of tension in the room – I think people were worried that this was not going to be politically appropriate, but that changed fairly rapidly,” she later explained. “Having been invited to the White House, I felt that I should really show what poetry could do and that, in fact, it covers many different aspects of human joy and triumph and tragedy.”

Kenneth Goldsmith: A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he takes a more high-concept approach to his work. One book, Fidget, chronicles every move his body makes over the course of a day. Another book, Day, focuses on every word in the September 1, 2000 edition of the New York Times. He may be the most entertaining and confounding of the readers. Here he is reading a weather report for Iraq at the Whitney Museum.


Common: This is the poet at the White House you may have heard about, since conservatives have latched upon his invitation as the latest fuel for the conservative Talk Radio/Fox News culture war. (Sarah Palin even chimed in with her 140-character-or-less outrage.) Though sometimes political and profane, as the Daily Caller points out, Common is by no means known as particularly political or profane in the world of hip hop, and he certainly is no more controversial than Walt Whitman, a political activist in his day, who was read at the White House at the invitation of Laura Bush.

Wednesday at the White House briefing, Jay Carney said that the selected quotes from Common praising a Black Panther activist who had been convicted of killing a policeman or criticizing George W. Bush are not endorsed by the President. “The President opposes those kinds of lyrics. He thinks they are harmful,” Carney said, adding that the select lyrics do not accurately Common’s work, which is widely viewed as constructive and positive. Via Twitter, Common has embraced the controversy as an entertaining absurdity. “I’m dangerous!” he wrote. Here is look at one of Common’s biggest hits:


One more note, since I don’t expect to be writing about poetry again for Swampland anytime soon: Poetry, a monthly journal of poetry, won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence this week. If you are interested in finding a low-cost, easy way to get more poetry in your life, you can subscribe here.