Of Poetry and Presidents

Given the recent presidential tantrums about “the wall,” it’s no surprise that Robert Frost’s Mending Wall should come to mind.  Like many of Frost’s poems, its lines are often quoted out of context to make a point that is very different from the poet’s intention.  How many times have you heard: “Good fences make good neighbors…” as if it were a biblical admonition to sharpen one’s boundaries, clarify one’s property lines, make distinctions and separations. In the actual poem, though, Frost is ironically quoting his neighbor. His own response?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

frost

Suddenly an image from my sixteenth year appears: 1961, the inauguration of John Kennedy. Frost was invited to read. It was the first time a poet had been asked to do this. But in the glare of sunlight reflected by the snow, the elderly poet  couldn’t read the poem he’d written for the day and went on to speak The Gift Outright  with its disturbing and ambiguous ending:


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.

No more poetry at presidential inaugurations until 1977 when Jimmy Carter invited James Dickey to read at the inauguration gala.  The Strength of Fields, ends with:

Lord, let me shake   
         With purpose.    Wild hope can always spring   
         From tended strength.    Everything is in that.
            That and nothing but kindness.    More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green.    That is where it all has to start:
         With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
             Than save every sleeping one
             And night-walking one
         Of us.
                         My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

At Clinton’s first inauguration, Maya Angelou read On the Pulse of the Morning:

The River sang and sings on. There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock. So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African, the Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The Privileged, the Homeless, the Teacher. They hear. They all hear The speaking of the Tree. Today, the first and last of every Tree Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River. Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River. Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveller, has been paid for. You, who gave me my first name, you, Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, Left me to the employment of Other seekers — desperate for gain, Starving for gold. You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot, You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought, Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare Praying for a dream. Here, root yourselves beside me. I am that Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved.

ElizabethAlexander
Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander to read at his first inauguration and Richard Blanco at his second.

Alexander’s Praise Song for the Day contains these stanzas:

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 harmor take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

In One Today, Richard Blanco writes:

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello / shalom,
buon giorno / howdy / namaste / or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips
.

With the exception of Frost’s flinty lines, the poems celebrate difference, inclusion, labor, kindness and love, values sadly absent in today’s public discourse.

Will the poets return to civic life?  I have no idea. It’s tempting, these days, to see the world as a dystopian epic heading toward apocalypse. But in her magisterial new history of the United States, These Truths, Jill Lepore writes:

“The American experiment had not ended. A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.”

For me, the act of remembering and praising these poets is one way to give meaning to the ever-conflicted history of our collective experiment.