Thursday, January 22, 2009

Odes for Obama

Like many other people, I didn't think much of the poem that Elizabeth Alexander wrote and delivered on Inauguration Day. The Guardian has a good take-down of it, echoing many of the criticisms that I had when I first encountered it.

I'll admit that it's hard for me to get into contemporary poetry, and I have very defined prejudices about what I like in a poem--my opinions are more rigid on this matter than they are regarding plays, movies, or novels. Basically, I think poems should have structure. This could be rhyme (and unfashionable though it is, I love a well-deployed rhyme) but it doesn't have to be. It could be a systematic patterning of images, a vigorous rhythm, and/or playful use of sounds. I also like conciseness: I prefer a series of strong, vivid impressions to long abstract musings about "poetic" topics like love or death. In terms of poetic diction, I hate the self-consciously lofty and discursive, and prefer startling but precise juxtapositions of words. So generally speaking, I guess I'm an Imagist.

And, like the King of the Imagists, "Uncle Ez" Pound, I'm ambivalent about Walt Whitman, the inventor of free verse and father of American poetry. Stuff like "Song of Myself" is undeniably powerful, and it has a sense of structure and a vigor--great, swingy rhythm!--that I love. But I think that Whitman eventually became a parody of himself. I was disgusted when I first read Whitman's "The Runner" in my high school poetry textbook--I thought it anticlimactic and needlessly wordy. This is the entire poem:
On a flat road runs the well-train'd runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais'd.
To me, this is flat and prosy--just like Ms. Alexander's Inauguration poem. E.g. "Built brick by brick the glittering edifices / they would then keep clean and work inside of" has two cliches ("brick by brick" and "glittering edifices"), plus a jarring example of ending a sentence with a preposition, all in two lines--argh! And there must be a more interesting way to express the sentiment "keep clean and work inside of," too.

So I asked myself what I'd have done in this situation, and thought about Obama, and the "O" logo so prominent in his campaign. I began playing around with that letter, its sound and its shape--patterning a poem around the "o" vowel and the idea of circles. As I've said before, I think constraints spur creativity, and I think here they helped me avoid cliches. (Indeed, my poem is almost a reverse-lipogram: only 13 of its words do not contain the letter "O.") While I realize that what I've written would never pass muster at an actual inauguration, because punning on the new President's name is too much like creating a personality cult, I'd like to share it with you. If nothing else, it's an attempt to express my idea that poetry should be concise, startling, playful, vigorous.
By Marissa S–

O for this bauble-blue globe, our home,
O oxygen flowing into lungs’ lobes!
O solar voltage, grown blossoms, o storms,
Ocean foam, open coasts;
O spiro, o spero.

O the rotunda and Capitol Dome!
O echoing forebears, o voices in stones!
O sound of groans, slave-holds choking close;
O loads borne, o holes torn,
O torrents of bullets.

O voyages over, beyond and below!
O circles, o cycles, coalescence in one!
O folding toward focus, no goal too remote...
Sole moment. Souls, only.
O sore, soaring hope.

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