Thursday, May 12, 2011

An Un-Common Gathering of Poetry @ the White House

What kind of week would it be without a bit of hullabaloo over something the Obamas said or did? Not substantive hullabaloo, say, over his continued use of drones in Pakistan or possibly illegal intervention in Libya or his war on whistleblowers, a direct contravention of his campaign rhetoric, but hullabaloo of the most transparently political and partisan, but also uninformed kind. I am talking about the right-wing hullabaloo over Michelle Obama's invitation to poet and hiphop artist Common to appear at yesterday's White House-hosted poetry event. After the announcement became public, conservative organ Fox News denounced Common in histrionic terms, calling him a "vile rapper," because of his lyrics (rightly) criticizing George W. Bush for his warmongering and, the channel's Fox Nation claimed, calling for violence against police.  Fox News commentators like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin piled on, though none of them seemed to recall that Fox News commentator Jason Robinson had previously interviewed Common and praised him as "really positive." D'oh!

Commentators conversant in hip hop quickly challenged the caricature of Common quickly and conclusively. I did so on Twitter, calling attention to his powerful song "The People," which I think captures the experiences of millions of Americans today better than many poems being written, and found myself tweeting back and forth with Honorée Jeffers, a poet I admire and adore, over her denunciation of the homophobia and misogyny in Common's work. I noted that he had spoken out about his prior homophobia, but I accepted her critiques of his misogyny. I did not reply that if misogyny were a criteria for barring people from the White House or any public venues, a majority of men, not just hip hop artists, and even many women, would not set foot there. But again, Honorée's critique is important. Yet the criticism of Common was not that he rapped misogynistic lyrics or that he had once been a homophobe. Conservative caricaturists described the work as something else that it was not, which to my mind disqualified their criticisms altogether.

The poetry program also included former Poets Laureate of the United States Rita Dove (who served from 1993 to 1995, and was a colleague of mine during that period at the University of Virginia, where she still teaches) and Billy Collins (who served from 2001 to 2003), one of the most popular living American poets; the 2008 Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander (a former teacher of mine at Cave Canem and someone I know personally and hold in highest esteem); Kenneth Goldsmith; and musicians Aimee Mann and Jill Scott, and artist-performer Alison Knowles.  Before the evening's events, Michelle Obama hosted a nationwide student workshop, led by several of the poets, that included a panel discussion of the importance of and necessity for arts education.  I cannot praise the First Lady and President highly enough for hosting this event, and sincerely hope that despite the controversy, which unfortunately forced the White House to have to defend itself, they will continue such programs and, when Obama is reelected, will take them on the road.  Having the First Lady kick off arts and fitness events all over the country represents one of the best forms of advocacy either of these areas might possibly receive.

Here's the official White House video of the event:

Here's Common:

"One King dream / he was able to Barack us."

Mostly missed by the mainstream media was the startling presence of Goldsmith, who is by almost every measure most people writing and teaching poetry today would likely label as one of the most formally avant-garde writers in American or world literature. Goldsmith is a leader in the area of conceptual writing, or post-autonomous writing if I might venture another name, and his work is forbidding on multiple levels. You could even argue whether it constitutes poetry at all, as it fails to satisfy many of the criteria writers and critics have used to define or categorize this genre.  (I believe he is both a poet and conceptual artist of major importance.) Yet someone close to the Obamas, astonishingly to me, selected Goldsmith to participate and he even read from one of his most difficult works, Traffic, which is a vast river of text comprising snippets of weather-related broadcasts Goldsmith recorded over a fixed period. Other Goldsmith landmarks include his stewardship of Ubuweb, the repository for contemporary experimental creative works; his having sung philosophy texts by the likes of Theodor Adorno, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin; and his hosting the Poetry Foundation's Avant-Garde Poetry/All the Time podcasts.

Not to make too much of Goldsmith's appearance, but one way I read it--and Common's--is as a sign that amid the pragmatism and conventionality of a great deal of Obama's governance, there is a more daring streak that sometimes bares itself, rears its head, but which for obvious reasons he keeps in well-guarded safe. Rita Dove and Billy Collins are two of the best known and now canonical American poets alive, and Dove received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1987. Elizabeth Alexander, a professor at Yale University, a leading poet in her generation, was a colleague of the Obamas at the University of Chicago and remains their friend. The musicians who appeared also are fairly mainstream, and Jill Scott has spoken-word bona fides. But Goldsmith really is an outlier, so far out--believe me when I say that I have colleagues who would probably hesitate to invite him to read his poetry on campus, let alone profess before a classroom of undergraduate and graduate students as a poet--that his presence suggests, perhaps metonymically I would argue, another aspect of Obama's vision, the sort that perhaps Hannity identified but in caricature: Obama's capacity for the deeply fascinating juke, the more radically avant-garde and progressive but tightly concealed parts of his persona, ideology, policies, what his "politics of the possible" thankfully don't whittle or grind away. Hannity cited Common in this, but that's the obvious choice; Goldsmith's traffic went right over his and his fellow ranters heads, though I doubt Obama's--Barack's or Michelle's.

I'll conclude with a snippet that Reggie H. sent from Obama's speech at the event. You can read the entire transcript here, but catch the grace note of vernacular; I wish we saw more of that on a daily basis, though I recognize it might be too much for many. A little swinging improvisation goes a long way.

"The power of poetry is that everybody experiences it differently.  There are no rules for what makes a great poem.  Understanding it isn’t just about metaphor or meter.  Instead, a great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us and that teaches us something about ourselves and the world that we live in.  As Rita Dove says, “If [poetry] doesn’t affect you on some level that cannot be explained in words, then the poem hasn’t done its job.”  Also known as, it don’t mean a thing if -- (laughter) -- it ain’t got that swing.  That’s a little ad-lib there.  (Laughter.)"

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