Lip-syncing the Poetry of Empire

Craig Santos Perez
January 24, 2013
Comments 11

It must be strange for Americans to have a President who appreciates poetry since the arc of American culture bends towards the destruction of human dignity, which is the very source of poetry.


The recent inauguration and its displays of American decadence and corporate sponsorship have once again broadcast contemporary poetry across the diminishing national attention span. As we witnessed from Obama’s last inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, the poet’s task involves reaping the personal and professional benefits of national recognition, writing a cliché laden (and inauguration committee approved) poem, and performing that poem with less flair than the inaugural prayers, songs, or speeches.


Sadly, the task also involves steeling oneself against seething critiques and shameless praise from the insiders and outsiders of the poetry community.


Richard Blanco was a good choice for inaugural poet because he is a talented and thoughtful writer; I first read his work after reviewing The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (edited by Francisco Aragon, one of my the major driving forces behind for the new visibility of Latino poetry) back in 2007, and I immediately became a fan of his work. Blanco is also a good choice considering the record number of Latinos who were deported during Obama’s first term, as well as the administration’s unfulfilled promises to the gay community. Choosing a young poet also assured that Blanco was not likely to decline the invitation in protest, or to present a poem that would “rock the border”.


Why banish poets from the empire if empire can use poets towards its own ends? Use poets to wash over the empire’s crimes,use poets to feign respect for humanity, use poets to poeticize the ideology of empire. Blanco’s poem, “One Today”, is a poem of American exceptionalism and immigrant exceptionalism—of “one empire” built by many settlers on native lands. There it is, Mr. President, sitting there, for USE.


I confess that it was difficult for me to listen to “One Today”. How can you write about “fruit stands … begging our praise” without writing about NAFTA? How can you write about being rooted to “every stalk of corn” without talking about GMOs? How can you write about “routing pipes” without writing about the Keystone XL pipeline? How can you talk about “cutting sugarcane” without talking about the role of sugar and global trade in the war of 1898 between US and Spain, enlarging the US empire overseas? How can you muse about the “work of our hands” without talking about the unemployment rate? How will we head “home, always under one sky, our sky” when so many homes have been foreclosed, and so many futures, dispossessed?


The public attention that Obama has brought to poetry has led some to declare that poetry is dead. I think they are right. Poetry is dead because many Americans have sold their souls for the dream of capitalism, militarism, and colonialism—what Whitman called the “deformed democracy” of America.  Unlike some of Blanco’s other poems, his “One Today” is a perfect poem to present to zombie Americans because it is a dead poem.


For many of us whose native homelands are occupied by America, poetry is one of the few things that keeps us alive. Poetry is our defense against tyranny. It should not be the poet’s role to lip sync the rhetoric of empire. The poet’s role is to challenge and question. The poets role is to inspire others towards dismantling empire so that a truly humane form of life can emerge.


11 thoughts on “Lip-syncing the Poetry of Empire

  1. Poets have been whoring for Empire at least since Virgil (Aeneid). It is said Virgil before dying repudiated that poem and wished he could retract it – too late. As our own empire crumbles, what advertiser will retract his or her jingle?

  2. I agree with Craig, to a point, and certainly acknowledge this country’s neo-imperialistic foreign policy. But every time we write about love-making, for example, does our poem also have to acknowledge the rape camps in East Africa systematically stripping women of their dignity? How much can one poem hold? I think the bigger problem with Blanco’s poem is that it feels purposefully diluted, non-confrontational, and gimmicky. Fruit stands: arrayed like rainbows begging our praise? Freedom tower? Come on. Maybe it’s not a good poem; Blanco should do better.

  3. What to leave in; what to leave out? Ecstatic or protest? Inauguration or rally? It’s a big country with a lot of room(s). Maybe a full volume, or an anthology of contrasts. Ubi sunt. Where have all the poets gone? Into advertising. Ho-hum. Glad a politician aspires to poetry front & center.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I didn’t hear (or read) the same poem you did, but that hardly matters. I did, however, vote in the election and I am grateful my fellow voters rejected the Republican slate and platform. Many people were moved by both the President’s speech and the poem. Maybe they are simply naive or, as you suggest, ‘brain dead.’ I often feel (and write rants) very much in sympathy with you. And I’m not sorry for writing (and feeling) them. But I have some doubts about the accuracy of my imputations of others’ motives and intelligence and worry about my impatience and contempt for those who differ with me. It’s clear than no one can buy your vote or silence and that’s good. But why do you assume there are so few like you? Good luck in the next four years and maybe we’ll be lucky enough to get Naomi Shihab Nye as the poet for the next inaugural! Jim Watt, Bayfield, CO

  5. Craig,

    A bit of complicating qualification on Whitman: He aggressively supported the U.S. imperial war against Mexico.

    On poets and Empire and welcoming the embrace of its Institutions: It’s across the spectrum now, right? Witness Kenny Goldsmith’s reading to children at the White House (he certainly didn’t read poems about the hundreds of kids incinerated by drone attacks in the past few years–in fact, he read Whitman…). Most recently, he has been appointed the first “Poet Laureate” of the MoMA. On March 20th, he will celebrate his new position with the following talk at the Museum: “My Career in Poetry, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution.”
    Don’t know about ALL poetry being dead, but the Haute Culture sector of the “avant-garde” arguably is.

  6. nothing to add , you said it all , except for the malignant Church , those rotting religious rags the state wipes its bloody hands with . . . pious prayers and hypocrite hymns that begin and wrap every Ceremonial facade

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