Sweeping statements are the enemy of poetry

Via Andrew, George Packer argues against poetry--and specifically against Elizabeth Alexander--presenting at the Inauguration:

For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings. In response to the news about Obama's inaugural, Derek Walcott, who is about the only poet I can think of who might have pulled it off, but wasn't selected, said, "There have been great occasional poets--poets who write on occasion. Tennyson was one. I think Pope was another. Frost also." It's not an accident that Walcott couldn't name a poet born after 1874. And even Frost, who was chosen by J.F.K. to read the first inaugural poem in American history, botched the job, composing a piece of triumphalist doggerel that compared Kennedy to the Roman emperor Augustus. The eighty-six-year-old Frost kept losing his place in the winter sun's glare, the wind whipped his pages around on the podium, and finally he abandoned the effort, as if he'd never really had much conviction in it, and instead read from memory an earlier and better poem, "The Gift Outright."

There are many good reasons not to have poetry at the Inauguration. Maybe the president doesn't enjoy it. Not many people read it. And the lion-share of poetry is awful. Of course this also true of boxers, blogs, novels and magazines.But because poems are supposed to be the arena of the high-minded, bad poetry manages to come off not just as another category of bad art (like bad TV, or a bad movie) but as haughty, snobbish and elitist. It comes off as the sort of thing endorsed by people who say things like "hip-hop isn't music," or writers who condemn every practitioner of genre post-1874 as "lacking the language, rhythm, emotion and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings."

Look, there are many counters here. The most obvious being that someone needs to hit George off with Nas, Jay or Doom. Somehow I think George would still beef with me over whether it was poetry or not. Fair enough. But if this...

I drink Moet with Medusa, give her shotguns in hell
From the spliff that I lift and inhale..

Or this...

So now your rolling with us, like co-defendants
No phony business, should know the difference
From suprems solo, it's the style ancient as Moses scripture
It's latin kings, black kufis and white justice
Amongst us, crime invades the mind of youngsters...

 Isn't poetry, but Beowulf (which I love also) is. If this...

You heard holler, broad or dude, we need food
Eat your team for sure, the streets sure seem rude.
For fam like the Partridges, pardon me for the mix-up,
Battle for Atari cartridges, put your kicks up.

...isn't poetry but Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 is, than I need to start driving a cab. Maybe I do need to start driving a cab, but for other reasons. Anyway, by George's own definition--having "language, rhythm, emotion and thought that could move large number of people in large public setting"--hip-hop is the most vibrant form of poetry out there today. Even if it doesn't, as I suspect, move George.

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But around these parts, we don't define poetry by its popularity. There are all sorts of reasons why people don't read poetry today, some of it having to do with the art, but a lot more having to do with the broader society. It's not like people are reading books, period, these days. Which is why I thought Packer's dig at Alexander--who we will discuss in a minute--was unfair. 

A forty-six-year-old professor of African-American studies at Yale named Elizabeth Alexander has been chosen to write a poem for Obama's swearing-in. She is a friend and former neighbor of Obama's in Chicago, and her brother worked on the campaign and the transition. These alone seem like the kind of qualifications that entitle Caroline Kennedy to a Senate seat. Judging from the work posted on her Web site, Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry--a specificity that's personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic.

I don't know how long Alexander worked on that Venus Hottentot poem, but having taken a shot at poetry myself, I've got some idea. It's not the job of a critic to make an author feel good, but he could at least give the work some time and respect. Instead you get a guy scrolling through your site and comparing you to a titular heir who's about to big-footed into a Senate seat, and complaining that your work has "a specificity that's personal and unsuggestive." .

Look, I'm not sure having Alexander read in front of an audience of millions is the greatest idea. I frankly hate ceremonies. They're too long and people talk too much. But I'm sur that of the many awful and mind-numbling boring things that will happen on that day, Alexander's piece--whatever it is--will be a highlight. I'm going out on faith. To paraphrase one of the great poets of our era, I got five on it.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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