So apparently the Obama inauguration team is trying to choose which poet should read from their work on the big day. First off, I’m curious as to why the last few Republican presidents haven’t chosen to have poets read at their inaugurations. It’s one thing to be anti-intellectual, which has been at least one strain of the Republican rise – and hopefully fall – over the last half century, but can’t we all just agree that poetry is for everybody. Maybe there isn’t a Republican poet who’s any good? I don’t know – I don’t claim to be an expert on the state of American poetry.

John Lundberg, in that Huffington Post piece to which I linked above, has an interesting suggestion:

[Philip] Levine might be the most poignant choice, given the country’s current economic struggles. Raised in a blue collar family in Detroit, Levine writes poetry that champions the working man. Here’s an excerpt from his poem “Drum,” which begins by describing a blue-collar scene:

We sit
for lunch on crates before the open door.
Bobeck, the boss’s nephew, squats to hug
the overflowing drum, gasps and lifts. Rain
comes down in sheets staining his gun-metal
covert suit. A stake truck sloshes off
as the sun returns through a low sky.
By four the office help has driven off. We
sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside
for a final smoke. The great door crashes
down at last.

Later in the poem, Levine conflates working class and classical imagery, making the scene seem heroic and even timeless.

…In the darkness
this could be a Carthaginian outpost sent
to guard the waters of the West, those mounds
could be elephants at rest, the acrid half light
the haze of stars striking armor if stars were out.
On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.

If Obama is concerned about the inauguration taking on a tone that’s too ethereal for these tough economic circumstances, Levine’s unpretentious writing might prove an effective foil. Levine’s message suits Obama’s focus on the middle class and on the hard work and sacrifice it will take to get through a deepening recession. It seems wise to choose a poet who has long lived that life and sung within it.

I can’t decide whether it would be too hard to take a poet singing the Michigan ‘working man’s blues’ as Obama promises to ‘renew America’s promise’ – the theme of the entire inauguration proceedings. Regardless, it could be powerful stuff.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while is how Obama uses seemingly more universal language as a way to avoid discussing race (i.e. health care isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equality – economic (?) – isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem; lack of equal pay for women isn’t a black problem, it’s an American problem, etc). It’s not that I don’t really disagree with the logic of any of those points or others that he ends up addressing through similar arguments, but it seems like there are aspects of all of these social problems that are rooted significantly in racial disparities. This is not really an either/or proposition. We should be able to note the universal and particularized aspects of these kinds of problems.

So when it comes to deciding which poet should speak at the inauguration (assuming it’s only one and I’m not sure if that’s a correct assumption), I wonder whether the poet should somehow represent the deracialized / universalized working class, the focus of both Obama’s policies and rhetoric, or the more particular African American historic nature of the inauguration. I would be surprised if Obama did not refer to the day’s special significance to African Americans and their history, but I imagine one debate right now among inauguration planners is how much to be explicit about this aspect of the day. The real tightrope walk is how to have the inauguration – whether it be the choice of poet or Obama’s speech – address a seemingly universal (read: deracialized) historic moment, while simultaneously pointing to the fact of its universality precisely because it is so tied up in its racial dimensions.

Originally published on WHYY’s Y-Decide blog:

Does Al-Qaeda think race baiting is the new way to go? Obama is throwing everyone for a bit of a loop.