Thursday, April 1, 2010

Update on the Obama Poetic Language Initiative

It's the second year of the Obama Poetic Language Initiative, a little known act signed into law by the President early in his administration, without the expressed approval of Congress. It may be a questionable use of taxpayer money – but, as the keeper of a blog on the poetics of daily life, I feel inclined to support it nonetheless. I admire Obama for keeping a promise he made to supporters of The Loft Literary Center, back in Minnesota in the early days of his campaign.

As you may recall, Obama charged the nation's poet laureate, Kay Ryan, with asking living poets to go back and expunge negativity and obscurity from famous poems of the past, with the goal of making them more accessible and transparent. For those of you who are critics of wasteful spending: to his credit, Obama made it very clear that the poets are not to be paid for their efforts. Like all artists, they do their best work when subsisting modestly on the sheer pleasure they get from practicing their craft. All of the funding for this project will be used to publish revisions of the poems in an inspirational volume, under the bipartisan leadership of Laura Bush.

A good example is the revisionary work that has now been completed on  T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland", a poem that was recently modified by poet Wendell Berry. The opening line of this famous poem now reads:

APRIL is the kindest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dormant land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. 

Berry removed the Greek epigraph to the poem (because, after all, who reads Greek anymore): references to Hades, even in a dead language, only signal a disincentive to hope. Footnotes to poems violate the preferred protocols of the art form, requiring readers to have a frame of reference that exceeds the 100-mile radius of sincere local acute observation, the most valued perspective for a writer.

Here is the full first stanza of the new "The Wasteland." I don't think it is Berry's strongest work, but he's done an admirable job of making this a less depressing and disturbing poem.


APRIL is the kindest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dormant land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with preserved jam.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Kentucky hills
With a shower of rain; we stopped near the chicken coop,
And went on in sunlight, into the garden,
And drank water, and talked for an hour.
We used words we could both understand.
And when we were children, staying just down the road,
My cousin took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, dear
Cousin, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the winter hills, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, under the cover of winter.

Let's hope the Obama Poetic Language Initiative works. It's remarkable to have a President who pays any attention to poetry at all, and inspiring to have one so dedicated to making the form more democratic, hopeful, and less obscure. We'll be watching with interest here at elenabella as poetry unfurls its patriotic wings to soar like an eagle over this great land, becoming more accessible, appropriate, and inspirational for every American.


hoping for better things said...


Joyce said...

Thanks for the April Fool, Elena! You had me fooled at first--I was beginning to hyperventilate! And growl....

Daughter Number Three said...

Wendell Berry meets T.S.E.... inspired!

Lyle Daggett said...

Just dropping by, and reading, and was trying to figure out if you were doing some type of subtle sarcasm riff... then I read Joyce's comment, and realized what was going on. You got me! :)

Word verification is "raintee," which hints in so many directions I hesitate to guess.

elena said...

Love it that you provide the secret word verification with your comments, Lyle!