Once again, the case against political poetry

David Yezzi of the New Criterion opined on Obama’s choice of Elizabeth Alexander to give the inaugural poem, in the Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 9, 2009. It’s been linked variously. Most of what he says seems apt, reasonable and in fact obviously true about the situation and the choice. But at moments the tone and diction of the piece reveal what Yezzi’s real concerns are: that Alexander is lefty-multicultural lite, that her inevitably bad inaugural poem will do further damage to the reputation of good nonpolitical poetry. And his tone discloses some joy in all this as proof yet again that political poetry (poetry that “tells you what to do”) is ipso facto aesthetically bad. In the first ’graph E.A. is identified as an AfAm prof who “writes extensively about that academic trifecta — race, class and gender.” What’s the diction of word choices that and trifecta? Her major concerns or topics of interest are … But trifecta? Well that’s a bet on a clean sweep, a gamble, a game; no truth and beauty within sight. If Alexander doesn’t recite a poemthat “add[s] to the language, claiming for it a new richness,” then it will be “politics as usual,” and political poetry. Those are the choices. A synonymous binarism: wideness and depth on one hand, narrowness on the other. “The stumbling block for most political poetry is narrowness. As soon as poetry espouses an interest group [there it is, equation of political poetry with an “interest group,” “single-issue politics” etc.], it ceases to speak to the widest audience and fails in its bid for universality.” So, let’s see where we are. We need an occasional poem, honoring a particular president in a particular national context (and of course one nation of many) yet it’s also got to be universal. I suppose the great American poem can be considered universal. Right? To clinch the point, we are treated to (you guessed it) the post-communist Auden, he of post-9/11 fame: “Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do.” “Poetry, it turns out [diction trans.: in case you didn’t know; duh!], is unwieldy stuff, intricately layered and resistant to bald sloganeering.” Those last two words, in this newest brief against political poetry, cannot be separated. What if there’s a sloganeering that is not “bald”? Are there no slogans that have as their “guiding spirits … beauty and truth”? Is there never, ever beauty and truth in “incitement and hectoring”? As for sloganeering, I suggest we all go back to Frost’s “successful” inauguration poem. There was nothing here before we (immigrants from Europe) got here; the land was cultureless, without its own history, and we brought culture and history; what history and culture we make of the continent was always foreseen if currently unfinished. But now maybe here’s a new leader to finish the job.