The genre slides quickly downhill from there. In later centuries, what has been known as "occasional poetry" tends to be a fairly dubious catalogue, reeking of the overwrought, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," published six weeks after the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.
Half a league, half a league,The most jarring example of a poet knocked off the rails while trying to capture history is "O Captain, My Captain," which intellectually I know was written by Walt Whitman, but really feels like Longfellow. Inspired by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman was proud to nod at as they rode past each other in wartime Washington, D.C., the rebel is kneecapped by emotion, at his overwrought Victorian worst:
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
But O heart! heart! heart!It would take 50 years for decent war poetry to appear, such as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est."
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Summoning artists to participateRead it out loud for the full effect.
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something for us all to celebrate
Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms."Art hurts." That should be a book title. One has to wonder what Mayor Richard J. Daley, on the dais, made of that. There are also more than a few treatises to be written on the tendency over the past half century for Black female poets—never male—to be called upon to solemnize a public occasion by white politicians who wouldn't dream of inviting them to dinner. Maybe some deeper, unrecognized yearning toward truth sparks the assignment, but the truth can only be considered when rendered into poetry and delivered by a woman. We'll know our country has made actual progress when somebody like Terrence Hayes delivers the inaugural poem. I hope observing this isn't interpreted as diminishing female poets—careers have been scuttled for less. I'm not. I'm just pointing out a tendency.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages--
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.
we belch, or sniff, or scratch.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlivedbut if faced with courage need not be lived again.
We mean to be the peopleWe meant to beTo keep on goingWhere we meant to goBut how do we fashion the future?Who can say how?
Do this for six minutes and you have an inaugural poem.
Barack Obama's first inaugural in 2009 featured "Praise Song for the Day," written and read by Elizabeth Alexander. It is, in essence, a paean to the normal, and all the possibilities contained within. The poem has its moments.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,Not a bad poem. But it ends up manifesting rather than celebrating ordinariness, further undercut by her halting, choppy delivery. No matter the poem, you gotta sell it. Alexander's ... one ... word ... after ... another delivery is a reminder why many people don't like poetry. Watch her reading, and Amanda Gorman's accomplishment last Wednesday will be driven home.
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp
He welcomes the worthy, but guards our frontier,
Lest a murderous horde, for whom hell is the norm,
Should threaten our lives and our nation deform.
In you, young lady, for starters. Gorman soon slips into the lightest rap cadence, "The dawn was ours before we knew it, somehow we do it" with more memorable, powerful phrases in her six minutes than in all the previous inaugural poems put together. "A nation that isn't broken, simply unfinished," and "To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man" sailing boldly over the gender shoals that wreck so many. "Victorious, not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division" (okay, the truth is, we'll never stop sowing. But as another poet, Robert Browning, noted, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?")When day comesWe ask ourselvesWhere can we find light in this everlasting shade?
The hill we climb if only we dare itI don't want to quote the whole poem. Maybe it feels right because it was written three weeks ago. Or maybe it'll last the test of time.
Being American is more than a pride we inherit
It's the past we step into
and how we repair it
We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it
would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.