by Annie Finch
People turn to poetry at moments of personal and communal importance: tragedies such as 9-11, weddings, the dedications of monuments—and, yes, presidential inaugurations.
In recent years, our shared national confidence in the power of poetry to move us in public situations has been flagging. Richard Blanco gave a vibrant delivery of his inaugural poem, developing a moving image of the sunrise unfolding over various parts of the continent and U.S. citizens until it led back to the image of his own parents. But it seems that, for many of those who have talked to me about the poem over the past week, something was missing.
Is their disappointment justified? A public poem is no easy thing to produce. The poet is being asked to perform verbal alchemy on the importance of the occasion, to craft words in a way differently from all the surrounding prayers and speeches. Poetry is what’s called for—poetry that is palpably different from the language of every day.
This is what some Twitter users were responding to when they complained that Blanco’s poem didn’t use rhyme, what Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri meant when she used Blanco’s poem as an occasion to declare that poetry has become a “limp and fangless thing.”
A poet rising to a public occasion has a double test to pass: to gain the audience’s trust that the mantle of “poet” is deserved, and to use that trust to convey something worthwhile. In the service of the first goal, and perhaps the second as well, an inaugural poet does well to conjure the art’s distinctive magic, writing in the way that only poets can: with rhythms and beats, rhymes, refrains, and meters (not only iambic!), and the other diverse constraints of poetic rhetoric.
Using form may not be the only way to craft effective public poems. But, especially when listening as opposed to reading is key, it provides the most likely way to hammer out lines strong and memorable and unique enough that they will linger in a listener’s body, and from there have a chance to seep their way into the soul.
Petri is wrong when she writes, “There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible. The constraints of meter have long been abandoned.” Because there are so few examples of skilled and original formal poetry in the public eye, we as a culture have nearly forgotten that effective formal poetry is possible.
But, in fact, we are now in the midst of a Renaissance of enthusiasm for poetic constraint. All around us, forward-thinking, adventurous new poets—such as the many young contributors to this anthology, the developers of this new form, and these awesome Stonecoast students—are making brave new forays into poetic form.
In the comments section, I’d love to see your examples of poems, in form or free verse, that you think pass the inaugural poetry test and succeed as public poems.
Annie Finch’s most recent books are Spells: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press) and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Shaping Your Poems (University of Michigan Press). She is Director of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
image courtesy of google images