Sunday, January 25, 2009

Frank Rich's "No Time for Poetry"

Frank Rich weighs in this morning with his usual acumen in the New York Times. But this time his op-ed's headline “No Time for Poetry,” waves a warning flag to this poet, poetry professor, teacher of this semester's seminar, Poetry & Politics. What can he mean, no time for poetry? And so Rich begins: “President Obama did not offer his patented poetry in his Inaugural Address. He did not add to his cache of quotations in Bartlett's . . . . there's a reason that this speech was austere, not pretty. Form followed content.”

Whenever I begin a poetry course, I ask students to define the word “poetry.” Rich's definition appears to be “something we have time for” (a luxury, in other words); words that end up in Bartlett's (hence used for speeches before Chambers of Commerce in the fog of a future time); “pretty, not austere,” and “form that precedes content.” I will beg to disagree in a moment to each of these definitions.

Rich's op-ed goes on to set the recent Gilded Age of rampant capitalism and consumerism against the sacrifices that must come, sacrifices that Obama frames in quite personal terms (offering to reduce your own hours at work so that a co-worker does not lose her job, for example). We have been irresponsible, and we must become responsible; that's what Rich gets from Obama's speech, and rightfully so.

And yet Rich also makes a distinction between the gildedness and irresponsibility of poetry and the responsible austerity of plain speaking. “The austerity of Obama's Inaugural Address seemed a tonal corrective,” Rich continues, “to the glitz and the glut.” The speech, according to a friend of Rich's, was “stoic, stern, crafted in slabs of granite, a slimmed-down sinewy thing entirely evolved away from the kind of Pre-Raphaelite style of his earlier oration.” Without even pointing to the way in which this distinction is gendered, the notion that poetry cannot be stoic or stern—or even find itself in slabs of granite, for god's sake—reveals the writer's ignorance of a long tradition of political poetry, socially conscious poetry, even Wallace Stevens's late poems!

For Rich, poetry equals campaign mode, while austere prose equals sober governance. Wimpy Kumbaya is poetry, but now we've matured. Or something. You get the message already.

I cannot argue against the content of Rich's piece, but I can argue against the form of this argument, one that posits poetry as the too much, the excess of our lives. I can even point to Rich's own sentence, toward the end of the piece: “No one truly listening to the Inaugural Address could doubt that this former community organizer intends to demand plenty from us as we face down what he calls 'raging storms.'” What are “raging storms” but a metaphor (a piece of poetry) that stands for the more prosaic “bad times,” “recession,” “wars abroad"? Here Obama, if not Rich, has distilled the essence of our state as a nation into a (none too fresh) metaphor. He has explained us to ourselves in poetic language.

And even if Obama's Inaugural was not as poetic as, say, his 2004 Keynote at the Democratic National Convention, I would argue that the 2004 speech bound the country together in a way that no non-poetic speech could have done. We did not have as much poetry on January 20th in Obama's speech, but his ongoing poem was everywhere around us, in the two million people on the mall and on televisions across the country. We were there as a part of a poem, not in its despite.


Jill said...

"We were there as part of a poem..."

Lyz Soto said...

I got even more annoyed when I was listening to NPR this morning, and they devoted a good 4 minutes of air time to US lawmakers concern that the switch from analogue tv to hd tv was going to mean that a lot of americans would not be able to watch television. What is happening to a society when poetry is considered a luxury, and tv a necessity?

susan said...

Is that a rhetorical question, Lyz? I fear it must be!