Our American Story

Yesterday, the White House played host not only to politicians, but also to poets.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities hosted a two part event: an afternoon poetry-writing workshop led by the First Lady for students nationwide, and an evening of performances from notable American poets. Among those present were Elizabeth Alexander, who presented a poem at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and former U.S. poets laureate Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

Most of the ceremony is now available online. Learn more about the Live Poetry event from the White House blog. Read President Obama’s opening remarks at the evening session, and the First Lady’s opening remarks at the workshop.

The whole event was broadcast live on www.whitehouse.gov, so you can watch videos of the poetry workshop and the evening event.

One of President Obama’s comments I found most interesting was,

…as a nation built on freedom of expression, poets have always played an important role in telling our American story. It was after the bombing of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would become our National Anthem.  The Statue of Liberty has always welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Soldiers going off to fight in World War II were giving — given books of poetry for comfort and inspiration.  And whenever our nation has faced a great tragedy … we have turned to poetry when we can’t find quite the right words to express what we’re feeling.

It strikes me that poetry is said to stand in the gaps where “normal” words fail to express deep emotion.

In her remarks at the student workshop, the First Lady quoted Robert Frost: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat,” a physical, metaphysical reaction that the poet then puts into a different form. But while poetry uses imagery, metaphor, meter, rhyme, alliteration, and dozens of other formal features, it still uses words.

I think that’s an important caveat to remember because it keeps us from imagining poetry as entirely separate from other forms of expression. If poetry is a way of sharing emotion and inviting others to experience a basic vulnerability, joy, grief, or fear, then I think it’s worthwhile to imagine that other forms of speech could become more “poetic,” in this particular sense.

Does that mean poetry ceases to exist? Absolutely not! Does it mean everyday speech needs to be in iambic pentameter? Well, as much fun as that would be … no.

Instead, perhaps we need to keep asking why poetic forms give us a unique way to tell our American story, and why, when we can’t quite find the right words to express what we’re feeling, we turn to literature.

Perhaps those questions aren’t simply esoteric or whitewash for an ivory tower.

Perhaps they do matter after all.


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