For the fourth time in modern history, a presidential inauguration ceremony will include an official poet. Barack Obama has tapped Yale African-American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander to compose an original poem for the historic occasion of welcoming America's first black president.
Inaugurations are high-minded occasions, ceremonies full of hope and idealism and a focus on the historic sweep of our country. A commemorative poem, especially a classic ode to America, sounds like a fine idea. But Team Obama wants something really contemporary. The cultural elite is taking credit for Obama's election, arguing the arts opened narrow American minds to the prospects of hope and change. Jeremy McCarter boasted in Newsweek: "Where did we Americans learn to be so uniquely broad-minded? In large part, from our artists."
The danger of a politician sponsoring official poetry composed just for the moment is the poem might fall flat under the weight of its own cockeyed self-importance. Many remember Maya Angelou in 1993, proclaiming in grandiloquent tones some nonsense about a river, a rock and a tree. It was a flop. If the poem is too opaque, it will suggest to the millions watching on television that poetry is a high-faluting art best saved for gatherings of tenured professors and Ph.D. candidates sipping their lattes.
In today's America, poetry is either high art or lowbrow commerce. It comes either from avant-garde poets, writing only for a snobbish elite and ignored by the broad public; or from commercial sources, assembly-line verses crammed into a Hallmark card, written for the masses and spurned by the tastemakers. In today's culture, the most popular poems are usually song lyrics, from rock anthems to rat-a-tat rap songs about the thug life. They're not the kind of poetry you read on marble platforms for presidents and Supreme Court justices.
Obama's pick of Professor Alexander of Yale fits comfortably into that snobbish elite, and worse yet, the Obama vetters did not seem to contemplate her appointment as a chance for people to become acquainted with her more outrageous work, especially one of her best-known poems, entitled "The Venus Hottentot." It caused Investor's Business Daily to warn about an "X-rated inauguration."