THIS BLOG IS NO LONGER OPERATIONAL. PLEASE ENJOY WHAT IS HERE, AND DO LEAVE A COMMENT IF YOU WISH. NORTH CAROLINA'S NEW POET LAUREATE IS CATHY SMITH BOWERS. SHE WILL SOON HAVE HER OWN WEBSITE THROUGH THE NORTH CAROLINA ARTS COUNCIL SITE. I WILL BE SHIFTING MY ATTENTION TO HERE, WHERE I AM, (SEE SIDEBAR)USING IT TO DRAW ATTENTION TO WRITERS WHOSE WORK DESERVES ATTENTION. I INVITE YOU TO VISIT ME THERE. For a video of the installation ceremony, please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xAk6fOzaNE.
Go to http://www.yourdailypoem.com/, managed with finesse by Jayne Jaudon Ferrer, who says, "Our intent is to make visitors to Your Daily Poem aware of the joy and diversity of poetry."
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Barack Obama, the Poet?
Regardless of the way you voted last Tuesday, I think readers of this blog will find the article below pretty interesting. Turns out we have a President-elect who wrote poetry when he was in college and not bad poetry at that, I'd say, despite Harold Bloom's condescension. If he'd been a student of mine, I'd have thought, hmm, there are some things here we an work with. Who knows what might happen if he has the desire to continue? I shudder to think of what Bloom would have said about my 19 year old's poems turned in to my first writing class.
So former President Jimmy Carter is "the worst poet in the United States," according to gatekeeper Bloom? Well, he might open The New Yorker on any given week and find some poetry far worse ---or the American Poetry Review. This does not mean that I have not come upon poems in The New Yorker that I wish I had written. It simply means that I have also come across some stinkers. I recall William Matthews telling me many years ago that there wasn't as much good poetry out there as people (mostly poets) wanted to think. And the best, most meaningful, poetry is not always in the prestigious journals where Bloom no doubt expects to find it.
As for Bloom's closing advice, how many writers have stories of being told just that--don't go on with it? Maxine Kumin, a poet I deeply admire has a similar story about her first poems being insulted by a prof. when she was in college. Allen Tate told me nothing was happening in mine, when I was a student at UNCG. I was too polite to shrug, but I did so inwardly. The truth is, young (or middle-aged or elderly) writers who have the passion to write usually don't ask their teachers if they should go on with it. They know they have to.
Obama as Poet (www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/prespoetry/bo.htm)
When President-elect Obama was a 19-year-old student at Occidental College, he published two poems in the spring 1982 issue of Feast, the school's literary magazine. The first poem, "Pop," appears to capture a moment between the young Obama and his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham. The bond between the two is reinforced at the end of the poem by the framing and reflective properties of Pop's glasses.
Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken In, sprinkled with ashes, Pop switches channels, takes another Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks What to do with me, a green young man Who fails to consider the Flim and flam of the world, since Things have been easy for me; I stare hard at his face, a stare That deflects off his brow; I’m sure he’s unaware of his Dark, watery eyes, that Glance in different directions, And his slow, unwelcome twitches, Fail to pass. I listen, nod, Listen, open, till I cling to his pale, Beige T-shirt, yelling, Yelling in his ears, that hang With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling His joke, so I ask why He’s so unhappy, to which he replies... But I don’t care anymore, cause He took too damn long, and from Under my seat, I pull out the Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing, Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face To mine, as he grows small, A spot in my brain, something That may be squeezed out, like a Watermelon seed between Two fingers. Pop takes another shot, neat, Points out the same amber Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and Makes me smell his smell, coming From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem He wrote before his mother died, Stands, shouts, and asks For a hug, as I shink, my Arms barely reaching around His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ‘cause I see my face, framed within Pop’s black-framed glasses And know he’s laughing too.
When asked to comment on the merit of "Pop," Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University, described it as “not bad—a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection.... It is not wholly unlike Langston Hughes, who tended to imitate Carl Sandburg."  Obama's poetry, Bloom makes clear, is much superior to the poetry of former President Jimmy Carter (Bloom calls Carter "literally the worst poet in the United States").
President-elect Obama's second poem, "Underground," is more exotic and obscure:
Under water grottos, caverns Filled with apes That eat figs. Stepping on the figs That the apes Eat, they crunch. The apes howl, bare Their fangs, dance, Tumble in the Rushing water, Musty, wet pelts Glistening in the blue.
Bloom feels that "Underground" is the better of Obama's two poems, reminiscent of some of D. H. Lawrence's poetry: “I think it is about some sense of chthonic forces, just as Lawrence frequently is—some sense, not wholly articulated, of something below, trying to break through.” 
While President-elect Obama's poetry displays some signs of talent, by choosing politics over poetry he made, like the other poetry-writing presidents before him, the right career choice. As Bloom notes: “If I had been shown these poems by one of my undergraduates and asked, Shall I go on with it?, I would have rubbed my forehead and said, On the whole, my dear, probably not. Your future is not as a person of letters.“
1. All quotations by Harold Bloom from Rebecca Mead's "Obama, Poet," (http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2007/07/02/ 070702ta_talk_mead, The New Yorker, July 2, 2007).
2. To read other assessments of Obama's poetry, many less positive than Harold Bloom's, see "Obama's Poetry Skills Draw Scrutiny" (http://media.www.oxyweekly.com/media/storage/paper1200/news/2007/04/04/News/ Obamas.Poetry.Skills.Draw.Scrutiny-2822022.shtml, The Occidental Weekly, April 4, 2007).
I've lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina since 1968, though I'm a native of SW Georgia. My paternal grandmother was born in the Blue Ridge, and I grew up wanting to live here. Where I am.
I've published five collections of poetry, the most recent 4 being with LSU Press, and have published poetry in magazines ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to Appalachian Heritage. But I also hike, bang pots and pans around in my kitchen, and love several dogs who leave fur all over my carpets. I write poetry because it's my way of singing back to the world both within and without.