Frost / Kennedy

On Monday, Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term as America's president. As always, hopes are high for what he might say, particularly given the coincidence of this inauguration with Martin Luther King Day. As well as his speech, for which we have such high hopes, the ceremony will include music and poetry. This year's poet is Richard Blanco, a 44-year-old gay Cuban American civil engineer turned prize-winning poet. Last time around, it was Elizabeth Alexander whose poem, Praise Song for the Day", I've mentioned before. It's hard to imagine the pressure of conceiving or bringing a poem to that occasion, but I'm glad they still expect someone to try. And what else is poetry good for if not to be the “moment’s monument”? 

I was intrigued to learn that John F Kennedy was the first president to include poetry in the ceremony. The poet was Robert Frost, then 86 years old. Frost had named Kennedy as the next president long before Kennedy announced any intention to run in 1960. In his campaign, Kennedy would often close his stump speech with two lines from Frost: “But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” When he was elected, he asked Frost to read at his inauguration, and even named the poem he wanted: “The Gift Outright." Frost agreed, but then wrote another, much longer poem, which he typed up on hotel note paper in Washington the night before the ceremony. On the day, wind and glare made the typed poem hard for him to read, so he simply recited the other poem, Kennedy's first choice, from memory. Afterwards, his advice to Kennedy was to govern with “poetry and power,” to which Kennedy responded: “It's poetry and power all the way!" Read more about the poet and the president here

I find the story lovely, but the poem itself less so. It speaks to a different sensibility from the one Blanco will draw on and perhaps, if we're lucky, immortalise. I would have guessed it's not exactly the sensibility surrounding Kennedy's election, either, with its nostalgic backward glance and glorification of settlement, but I wasn't there. Kennedy obviously thought it was perfect for his moment, the monument he required. Here it is:
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

Bright gleam of our bright star

I confess: I have Obama-fever. My admiration morphed into something more like fandom when Airforce 1 touched down two days ago. I'd like to think it's not because he's an American celebrity, but more because he's a piece of American history. Especially but not only when he speaks, there's an echo of Martin Luther King Jr in his presence; a sense of somehow being larger than his particular moment. It's there when he drops a line like “History is on the side of the free,” as he did in his address to Parliament yesterday. In this line, and in his many “arc of justice” references, there's a more deliberate resonance of Dr King, drawn from the speech King gave in Georgia in August 1967, about eight months before his death. Though beleaguered and embattled, three-quarters through an extremely tough term, Obama seems still to stand in the sweep of the same arc, to be part of the same dream.  

[L]et us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth [...] Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days
When hope unborn had died.

Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place
For which our fathers sighed?

We have come over the way
That with tears hath been watered.
We have come treading our paths
Through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam
Of our bright star is cast.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Saying what needs to be said

Robert Frost said a liberal is a man too broad minded to take his own side in a quarrel. Last Thursday night President Obama (finally) took his own side and gave the speech many have been waiting to hear. Still bending toward compromise, it was punchy, simple, and stirring. He stood up for ordinary America against the interests of the rich and influential, and argued (finally) from America's history against the anti-government feeling that has only swelled since the mid-terms. Simplifying pro-government reasoning, he argued that while individualism has its strengths, there are some things we can only do together. It was a breath of air for anyone who's been watching the GOP suck the oxygen out of US politics.

Unavoidably, the speech participates in the very politics it was trying to circumvent, and doubtless the pundits of both sides will have their way with it. One of the criticisms already levelled, by Maureen Dowd, is that talking doesn't solve anything. She wrote in the NY Times that Obama is suffering from the “speech illusion”: the idea that he can come down from the mountaintop, read the teleprompter, cast his magic spell, and ascend the mountain while everyone scurries to do his bidding. I think in the case of Obama, coming down from the mountaintop to deliver a fiery speech is exactly what he can do, exactly what he should do.

While generally all talk and no action is political failure, sometimes there is virtue in simply saying what needs to be said. Saying what those who have no voice have been saying unheard, and saying it loud. Obama's jobs bill has yet to go through, but his words mattered. Words can restore dignity, sometimes via indignation. They can break rhetorical cycles, gauge or change the public mood, set people on a fresh course. Obama has a unique capacity to do just that. Kevin Rudd (an infinitely less gifted speaker) was blistered by those who thought his apology to the stolen generations was a meaningless gesture, adrift from action. Watching the faces of the Indigenous people massed outside Parliament House that day, I couldn't believe the words weren't important in themselves. Words that acknowledged the past, made a space for grief to be aired, made real the sufferings that had for so long lain unsung. Words reify experience; they set it down indelibly in the long records of human life. As Shakespeare knew, and Obama trusts, words can make and unmake worlds.

Free at last

In the month since Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, and six others were shot dead around her, much has been said about speech: the power of it, the civility of it, the freedom of it. How strong is the thread between words and deeds? Can a culture of incivility really breed a spree of killing? Can a rhetoric of arms and insurrection really take no responsibility for violent deaths?

The conversation this event provoked was as heated and noisy as the one that preceded it, yielding an even more aggressive defense of the first amendment (the right to free speech) and the second (the right to bear arms), a defense that seemed at times to confuse the two. One Republican said that “those bearing firearms at Congressional town hall meetings and Obama events were no different from anti-Bush demonstrators ‘waving placards.’” Surely the difference is the same one America prizes between its own polity and that of, say, Iran. (I might also add, placards don't kill people, guns kill people.)

That story is told in this article on the Constitution, which points out among other things a discrepancy between a surge in interest and a plunge in knowledge about this fraying parchment. ‘Originalists’ insist, as one imagines Ben Franklin or James Madison would not, on an undeviating and literal interpretation of this founding document, while at the same time surveys reveal many of Americans’ most cherished Constitutional phrases don’t occur in the document at all.

When this new zeal for the Constitution led to a reading of ‘the whole thing’ at the opening of the 112th Congress in January, several of the Constitutional nasties – like the disenfranchisement of women, and the dehumanising of black people – were left out, silently expunged from the record, without exciting as much commentary as the replacement, in a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, of the word ‘nigger’ with the word ‘slave.’

For all kinds of reasons, these elisions and incisions in the written records are dangerous. On the surface they may seem both correct and caring. Yet changing the past to suit the present is (historically anyway) a diabolical thing to do. Is this what President Obama meant when, in his inaugural address, he urged Americans to ‘choose our better history’?

I don’t think so. I think he wanted Americans to choose the best examples to follow, to fulfill the best promises of the founders, of the fighters, of the freed. I think he wanted America, as he said in his speech at Tucson last month, to be as good as they imagined it.

Unfortunately, Obama’s words are often drowned. Torrential, irrational, mendacious rhetoric floods the thousand channels of communication in contemporary America; swelling when any moderate voice attempts to curb it. After all, “what king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?” We might say of Obama, as Measure for Measure’s Duke says in soliloquy:

…millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report
Run with these false and most contrarious quests
Upon thy doings: thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dreams
And rack thee in their fancies.

This is what freedom of speech, and its armed defence, have come to mean. Speech free from obligation, free from restraint, free from liability. In the land of free speech, the double-tongued man is king.

Praise song

Two years ago today, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.  I remember waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to watch it live on the internet. That freezing January day was on the whole much less elevated, much less elegant, than the November night he won the vote, but it was nonetheless momentous. I was particularly excited about the commissioned poem; delighted that poems could still be commissioned for state occasions, delighted with the kind of president who would commission one.  But when it came I was disappointed. Probably, not unlike Obama's presidency, no matter how good it was it could not fulfill the expectations it created, but hearing it read that day by its author Elizabeth Alexander I found it uninspiring, falling short of the grandeur of that moment.

However, reading it again now I think it has a great deal of merit, and indeed has said something true and hopeful about America - something America seems to have forgotten in the intervening two years. Race is undoubtedly present but unspoken, merged in a common past of striving and dreaming. It speaks of a creative humility and carried history that seem lost in the clamour for tax cuts and razor wire. It speaks of love as the abiding American thing. It speaks of articulation as a way of relating - something else that seems lost. Instead of speaking, there is shouting. Two years on, there is scorn instead of praise.

Praise Song for the Day

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need
. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

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.