Where were my poetry tax dollars on inauguration day? I want to know what we’re paying a poet laureate for if we are not going to use him or her on important state occasions such as, but certainly not limited to, presidential inaugurations. If the job of Poet Laureate is “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry” then it is also his or her job to not allow actions which will decrease the appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. Therefore, I must suggest it would have been an appropriate action by the poet laureate to have offered Ms. Alexander a stiffly spiked drink before her reading of the inaugural poem, just enough to send her sleeping silently while the poetic moment passed, so we may all have been spared the experience of everything poetry is at its worst and what people who do not like poetry are sure it always is: dreadful, banal, trite, pedestrian, boring and bad. And, in keeping with our expectations, Ms. Alexander read it badly as well. Ms. Ryan, where were you? Why did this happen on your watch? Why did you not protect poetry?
As I listened to her read the inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration,” (32 pages), the camera cut away to show the masses leaving in what appeared to be an exodus from tragedy. Within ten minutes this arrived in my email:
God, what an audible THUD to a great speech by Obama when that poet came out and started reading her poem “Deer in the Headlights” from her collection “I Am A Robot: Emotions are for Ethnic People.”
I was asked if I were moved by the poem. I answered, “Yes, indeed I was. I moved to the kitchen.”
The poet laureate is paid $35, 000 a year for his or her services. When I was paid less than that as a teacher, I was busy all the time. When the school needed English taught, which was, strangely, every school day, I was there doing my job. Where was Kay Ryan?
While I agree this is a terribly petty salary to pay a poet (though much more than most poets make as most are paid nothing at all) Ms. Ryan is, nevertheless, a public employee paid with my tax dollars and, on that special occasion I expected the Poet Laureate of the United States to offer her well-crafted professional artistic services. I paid for it. I want it. My tax dollars at work.
But I do not blame Ms. Ryan. I do not know if Mr. Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander or if the chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chose her or if having Alexander read was the result of someone calling in a marker, but surely, someone must take up the gauntlet of repairing the damage she has done to poetry. Someone must pay.
Kay, I’m sorry, but your job just got harder.