1:41 p.m. January 22, 2013

Richard Blanco: Why is it that poetry only rears its zombie head when we elect a democrat?

Another Democratic inaugural, another bad poet, this time one Richard Blanco, a Cuban-American workshop poet dull and cautious enough even for the Obama administration.

Why is it that poetry only rears its zombie head when we elect a Democrat? I don’t recall any linebreaks during the Bush years; the GOP doesn’t seem to want that kind of high-culture ballast.

The Democrats, though, perhaps because of their link to the academic world, keep dragging out the poets—to be seen, more than heard.

The only one who’s really stuck in most Americans’ memory is Robert Frost, who read “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s inaugural, lending his craggy profile to the occasion. Nobody remembers the poem, which was sentimental nationalist maundering; they remember him standing in the cold sunlight, setting off JFK’s cocky grin—and in fact, that was his job and the job of all inaugural poets: graphic balance, demographic offset.

The title “Poet Laureate of the United States” didn’t exist until 1985, when, as part of the childish awe for Anglo “high culture” by the Reagan right, it was adopted to replace the clunky old title, “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” You can see a change in linguistic fads in the shift; like many older American positions, the “Poetry Consultant” was intended to sound as un-British, as clearly a product of “the land,” as the colonists in Frost’s inaugural poem. The project was to differentiate ourselves.

Reagan’s people wanted to return to an imagined Tory culture and assumed that adopting the British title, “Poet Laureate,” was all it would take. But that was never the case. The British actually make their laureates produce official poems, and a small but vindictive readership even reads and judges what they come up with. Wordsworth was powerful enough to exempt himself from the requirement to produce effusions on demand (or just too slow and stupid to come up with anything on a deadline), but the rest of them have to cough up something when a royal is born, or dies, or trips on a root. Poor Ted Hughes, a hero of mine, ruined himself by taking the laureateship in Britain. He tried to worm out of it by writing poems about more pleasant topics, like the courage and tenacity of the Atlantic Salmon when he got the call to compose an ode on the latest royal baby or divorce, but he still got the boot from Private Eye. First Sylvia, then the Laureateship; I don’t know how Hughes lasted as long as he did, but I suspect that he welcomed death.

The Laureate’s job in this country is much easier. We don’t want to hear anything out of any American poet other than a reiteration of the poet’s demographic identity. This can be as ridiculous as you can imagine, and we’ll still buy it; Whitman started the joke by insisting that he was, literally, every damn man, woman, and child in these United States. With the increasing sophistication of electoral techniques, the poet’s job has been to represent a particular demographic.

JFK’s inauguration, the crowning of a worryingly young, and even more worryingly Catholic, president, called for a poet who could incarnate the old, Eastern Protestant stock; enter Robert Frost, self-invented New England farmer. Frost’s identity, like that of many practitioners of identity politics and poetics, was a fraud; he was the child of a bohemian San Francisco family. But Frost looked the part, which is the important thing, and did his job, reassuring the nervous Evangelicals that JFK’s election was “a triumph of Protestantism—over itself.”

We’re a visual people, and for a long time our poets have been about looks—and Frost, with those craggy New England eyebrows, looked the part. Eyebrows can take an occasional/autobiographical poet a long way; I remember Czeslaw Milosz at Berkeley making a whole second career out of those wise, grieving refugee eyebrows.

Whereas that whole verbal thing, the notion of writing a good poem, isn’t nearly as important as you might think. The American inaugural poet’s only verbal task is to include as many nouns related to the crucial demographic issue as possible. So Frost, doing his best to nativize the upstart Papist JFK, recited a poem which was, believe it or not, a narrative of US history as a love triangle involving America, Britain and “the Land.” Naturally, the good guy—that’s us Yanks--gets the girl (“the Land”) and that dashing cad, Britain, gets the big send-off.

Nobody realizes now how very real that demographic problem was for JFK, simply because US demographics change so fast—well, that and the fact that we have less historical memory than the average meerkat. In current demographic terms, Frost fronting for JFK is just “old white guy and young white guy,” but in 1960, when the US population was 85% white, intra-white demographic tensions were very serious. There were people, alarmists, who even thought JFK would be killed down in the South for not embodying the proper presidential demographic.

And now here we are again, as fresh as a bunch of amnesiac daisies, at Obama’s second-term inauguration, listening to “the Inaugural poet,” a gay Cuban-American named Richard Blanco.

In a sense, I could end this article right there, because that’s all the appearance of Blanco consisted of -- the epithet “gay Cuban-American.” Nobody’s going to know anything more than that, even after he’s said his piece, because nobody can actually read poetry in this country. His job was to be a registered poet with the most urgently needed demographics.

As it happens, I won’t end the article here because it’s just plain fun to look over a typical Richard Blanco poem, “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha” and see what “poem” means for a practicioner of absolutely pure identity poetics, unsullied by one single stray thought or original turn of phrase. So here’s the perfect expression of that genre, a true parakeet of parakeets, Blanco’s “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha.”

Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha I arrive with a box of pastelitos, a dozen red carnations, and a handful of memories at her door...

If you have any familiarity with contemporary American poetry, you know this poem. You can read the whole thing if you want, but if you’ve ever been in a poetry workshop you’ve read it dozens of times—in fact, some of you have probably written it a few times yourselves.

The theme, the approaching death of a relative, with flashbacks to the author’s childhood, is probably the most common of all. It is always used to arouse pathos, not to say bathos, but beyond that, it is used to claim for the author certain kinds of identity-creds.

These are not always matters of ethnicity or orientation, particularly when the poem is deployed by a white male. I remember the day that my classmate Doug Larson read a poem on his father’s death, very similar to “Tia Cucha,” to Robert Pinsky’s class at UC Berkeley. Doug was using the poem to claim child-abuse creds, so the poem included a flashback, from the dying dad’s hospital bed, to the memory of bad, drunken dad stomping Doug’s pet turtle to death.

These poems are always implicitly autobiographical; what value could they have, as claims to a valued identity, if they weren’t? But that’s not to say that they’re necessarily true. I discovered this when I got to know Doug, impressed in part by his ability to have survived a dad like that. Eventually I met Doug’s dad, who was not only alive and well but an abstemious, polite academic, then serving as head of the English Program at Mills College.

American poetry is about identity-creds, but the only rule about them is the one Warhol declared about art: “…anything you can get away with.”

Blanco’s poem about the dying relative makes no claim to abuse, of course. It’s not necessary, because the Hispanic identity Blanco’s reinforcing here has value in itself. “Fastest-growing demographic in the US,” as every headline was saying after the election whose result Blanco is commemorating.

If you know much about identity poetics, you’d probably risk a bet that Blanco’s actual identity is far closer to the American elite and far less close to those warm Cuban roots than he wants you to believe. And this is, of course, the case. Blanco was born in Spain in 1968, and raised in a well-to-do Florida household, visiting Cuba exactly once in his youth.

The authenticity paradox familiar to anyone who’s actually had to read reams of this stuff is that the people whose identity is most authentic are also those most crushed by their very authenticity, rendered very unlikely to produce this sort of bland official poetry. It’s generally those who can pass for such groups, without actually having gone through the deeply disabling experience of actual oppression, who know the angles, can network the faculty groups and writing cliques effectively, and rise to the top.

Blanco’s safe, though; his stand on Obama’s podium represents success in itself and as our folk proverb—one of the nastiest in the world—tells us over and over again, “You can’t argue with success.” JFK was no more a typical working-class Cat’lic than Blanco is a typical Mexican or Central American migrant. Even if his alleged Cuban identity passed all tests, it wouldn’t necessarily imply solidarity with the mainly Mexican and Central-American immigrant demographic, any more than it has for Cuban-American politicians like Marco Rubio.

Blanco, though, has another identity which is valuable in the ceremonial thanks the reelected administration bestows on its supporters: he’s gay. This is not explicit in “Unspoken Elegy…” but it is a huge part of Blanco’s public profile, so much so that he has a coming-out story on Huffington Post timed to coincide with his Inauguration performance.

So, by the time Blanco stepped up to the podium, his job was essentially finished; his job was the work he did to establish a timely identity, and being chosen to ascend that podium was not so much a chance to show what he could do as a poet but the proof that, in American-careerist terms, he had already done it.

Thus, those who do well at this odd poetics are not notable for any particular daring or originality in their poems. Even so, Blanco’s poetry-by-numbers is a little shocking, at least for me (I’ve been out of the game for a while.) Every single line is the same identity claim, uttered with a sort of mindless territorial imperative, like a bird’s cry or Hughes’s thrushes on the lawn, “more coiled steel than living.”

The title, “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha,” not only announces that this will be the seven-millionth poem by an ambitious American poet on a dead relative, but stakes the ethnic claim as well by the use of “Tia Cucha.” What’s interesting about Blanco’s use of Spanish words and phrases in his poetry is that it’s clearly designed for an English-only audience.

In fact, you can track any Blanco poem against Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and find the same pattern: the words the poet doesn’t expect his audience to understand are always so fully telegraphed by context that no proficiency in the non-English vocabulary is required at all. And if one considers the place of poetry in the US, as a despised art practiced solely in Anglo-dominated academic circles, this tactic makes perfect sense.

The first line is as formulaic as the title: simple-present tense narration meant to be understood as past, with the Spanish noun “pastelitos,” no challenge for any urban speaker of American English, contextualized fully by the time it occurs at the end of the line.

The rest of the poem is strictly by the workshop numbers: Blanco’s visit to his dying aunt triggers memories of earlier visits, which allow him to link the aunt, and thus himself, to Cuba: “…scenes of old Havana” and “…a bridge to Cuba.” There are the inevitable hints of her impending demise, always in the simple present tense, “I ask her how she’s feeling, but we agree not to talk about that today.”

And then the payoff for the poet, the long peroration in which Blanco reminds us that the aunt exists only as long as he, the poet, commemorates her, and will be dead very shortly except in Shakespeare’s familiar old black ink: “She too/will vanish, except for what/I remember of her.” Fade into the detailed description of flower:

…flowers in a tumbler--a dozen red suns burst in the sapphire sky framed in the window, sitting by the table…

aaaaaand cut.

This brief template works for most of Blanco’s poems, which are in fact remarkable only for the utter blandness of their language -- almost dull enough to be presidential, in fact.

It’s not that American culture doesn’t value inventive language—two hours watching a good American animation series will awe you—but that poetry, marooned by the uninviting riddles of Modernism, found itself alive only among academics who were not only the allies of the Democratic Party but the most intense policers of the language, just as the Victorian clergy whose bastards they are were the craziest policers of Victorian English. (In the case of Huckleberry Finn, not even the accused text has changed in more than a century.)

Is this good? Is this bad? Those are the questions Americans always revert to, like the religious maniacs we are. The question is framed, most of the time, so crudely that it amounts to something like, “Are the identities this poet metonymically represents legitimate and deserving of validation/protection/narrative time?” To which the only sane answer would Hell yeah, obviously.

But why not put somebody who can write up there, Gustavo Aurellano or Edwin Torres? How did poetry become the most insignificant slave of the most priggish, dull, sanctimonious, official wing of ethnic discourse? South Park can splatter this stuff all over the screen without being priggish; The Simpsons can do it and be downright saintly and funny at the same time, like Francis of Assisi doing stand-up; why does the poetry version have to be so stiff, so dull, so pious, so utterly fake?

And why, god damn it, does the chosen inaugural poet have to be perhaps the dullest of all the dull poets who ever infested the wastelands of Iowa?