I listened today with great pleasure as Elizabeth Alexander read her poem Praise Song for the Day at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. What a joy it was to hear “We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.” Over at Salon, Jim Fisher’s “How to write a poem for the President” from last week had me considering the pros and cons of poems for occasions, and mostly ending up feeling much better about our past inaugural poems than Fisher.
Last July as I worked feverishly to compose a poem in honor of Gambier, Ohio’s Fourth of July parade, I was often tempted to rework an old poem that I felt more confident in because I thought the poem I was writing would not have significance beyond the moment; but then, the emotion of the moment and the tender and welcoming space of Gambier provided me all I needed for sharing the beauty of the town and its citizens with the citizens. Did I write a lasting poem? Perhaps after a many more revisions and laboring I might be so lucky, but aren’t we poets always trying to write it as best we can? Never finished, only abandoned?
Fisher’s argument (and many others) that inaugural poems don’t read well beyond the event is a short-cited one, I think. I just don’t buy his claim that “Once the function has passed, the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time.” If reading and writing poems is an internal event, as Fisher suggests, it is also an external one; we ultimately write for an audience–even if that audience is God, or an unknown reader, or, as Alexander read for today–the entire nation (and the world). When composing a poem for an event, the poem’s immediate faults are perhaps overlooked in favor of the event, but I would argue that any poet “commissioned” to write a poem for an occasion isn’t necessarily tethered to the event, but to an idea, or an image, or a resonating feeling which serves as the seed of the poem! Because this–oh, lets call it “the muse’s inspiration”–happens to come from a “commissioned” event is no less different than a poet moving toward the composition of a poem after a lover’s death, or the birth of a child, or snow falling onto a well-worn path, or a moth pulsing wings while pausing on a brick wall. Aren’t all observations–no matter how big or small–events that the poet translates into a poem? Does working against a deadline or for an occasion render the poem less than? Poets simply do their best, don’t they? No matter if it is for a “official occasion” or not.
Perhaps inaugural poems, and other poems for occasions, might get “stuck there” in a specific place and time–but this time/place/subject association is true for any art form, from films to books to sculptures to musical compositions. Is 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 any less relevant today because they are connected to a specific place and time period? Or has the Guggenheim in Bilbao lost its magnificence because it was commissioned? Surely Shakespeare’s plays, written-for-deadlines and written-for-specific-company-actors, are still relevant today despite being written for a specific company and theatrical season?
Poems that have “stood the test of time” are still connected to specific places, time periods, and events–and yet, it is the readers who must pass the judgment–who continue to investigate a composition’s continuing relevance and to decide for themselves at whatever moment they pick up a poem if it speaks to them or not. Additionally, this ‘test of time’ meter is wholly dependent upon questionable factors. There are many outstanding compositions and works of art that would be relevant today if it weren’t for barriers related to gender, race, sexual orientation, class status, geographical location, and academia, all of which have limited the readership or distribution of many worthy compositions. As well, we must, as writers, allow that poetry means many things to many different people; even poets as a group cannot come to a complete definition of what a “good” poem is or does–on the page, or off. It was Walt Whitman who wrote that a poem’s value is found in how the poet’s country “absorbs” the work. Perhaps some may feel that occasional poems do not stand alone past the event for which they were written, but I’d argue that such a feat is difficult for any poem–for any work of art. We try the best we can. Perhaps Kennedy was right: the goal is for the poet to “remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. ”