Presidential Poetry

More encouragement (see my earlier piece about education and about science and more science) comes around the matter of poetry and the presidency. Larissa Anderson, on Weekend America this Saturday, reported on the president-elect’s evident interest in poetry. Derek Walcott was featured in the piece as well (I was pleased to hear this since I like his work, and it is also good to hear about the work of a Caribbean thinker on the national stage – it does not happen often enough for my liking) and had some very interesting things to say. From the transcript of the piece (see that link for audio):

Walcott says it’s good for people in power to read poetry because human beings are complex and contradictory, and poetry can capture that. Like in Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” when the black student writes to his white teacher, “Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you. / But we are, that’s true!” Or in Walt Whitman’s line, “I am large — I contain multitudes.”

Walcott likes the idea of a president who reads poetry and thinks about this kind of human truth. Someone who can see beyond the act of political posturing.

Then he read his recent poem, “40 Acres” that he wrote for Obama, which I thought was rather good. He also described some of the process of writing it – also excellent to hear. Finally, the piece reported on something he said that reflects my own personal grumblings (of the last year) a bit. I’m glad to hear someone else saying it too:

But, he says Americans shouldn’t make a big deal of the fact that they elected their first black president.

“What is there to celebrate to say that he’s black and he’s a president. The celebration is a contradiction of the belief. The statement is all men are created equal, but when they become president, you say ‘Oh, we’ve got a black president.’ How can they be equal if that’s the case?”

He says they should focus on the kind of person Obama is, and celebrate that their next president is courteous, dignified and he reads poetry.

I think it is great to celebrate somewhat the milestone aspect of him being black, but for a while now I’ve been rather hoping that we -led by the press, etc- can stop overusing the word “historic”, in reference to his heritage, in every discussion of the election, and every summary of the year that mentions anything remotely related to politics. I want the right thing to be celebrated, and his heritage in and of itself is not where it should begin and end. I want to hear more celebration of Obama’s evident abilities, actions, and what he says and plans to do. (Hence the posts I’ve been doing here on some of that.)

Be sure that I’m not complaining too much… discussion has been pretty good, overall. I just get annoyed sometimes because these discussions rapidly get to naive and idiotic deployment of phrases like “post-racial America”, as though now that he is going to be in the White house, people will suddenly stop looking nervous when they see me walking along in some neighbourhoods at twilight, or people will stop pre-deciding about who I am and what I believe after glancing at me for a few seconds before I’ve had a chance to talk or act …or maybe I’ll see more than the incredibly rare few African-Americans using Griffith Park or the several other public spaces in this city that they pay taxes for, rather than feeling like they don’t belong for whatever reason. No. There’s a lot more work to do. “Post-racial America” is the single most stupid phrase of 2008. So if we could have the celebration without the rapidly following naive nonsense, I’d be less bothered. This is why I find it best to keep sentiments such as those above that I share with Walcott in our minds, to remind us how far we have to go.

Here’s Walcott’s poem, taken from the Times (it was written for them and appeared on Nov. 5th 2008) (you know, the London one):


Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving —

a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,

an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd

dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,

parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked


forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens

that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten

cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on one branch, is

a tense

court of bespectacled owls and, on the field’s

receding rim —

a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with rage at him.

The small plough continues on this lined page

beyond the moaning ground, the lynching tree, the tornado’s

black vengeance,

and the young ploughman feels the change in his veins,

heart, muscles, tendons,

till the land lies open like a flag as dawn’s sure

light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower.

–Derek Walcott

I recommend listening to Walcott reading it in the NPR piece.


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