The White House poetry reading is on May 11. But PoetryLeaks got a hold of the goings-on before the big day! Billy Collins went over very well with the White House crowd, making everyone, especially in the front rows, crack up. Afterwards, the President said, "Billy Collins makes poetry seem easy, joyful and spontaneous, not labored and miserable. That's the kind of gung-ho attitude we need more of in this country, as we put the economy back together." As for Elizabeth Alexander, the President said, "Despite all the pressures of the last two and a half years, I remember well her inaugural poem. Ordinary people going about ordinary tasks. What a wonderful insight! No need to weigh it down with needless complications. Work is its own reward. That's what Elizabeth and I both practiced at the University of Chicago. And look where it got us!" As for the Thomas Sayers Ellis rejection letter PoetryLeaks has in its possession, the President had no comment.
The Hall Monitor
By Billy Collins
Mr. President, I have heard those conspiracies
about you. Poetry is the loudest rumor, a frail
conspiracy of all the ghost predecessors' autos-da-fe,
contained in the friendly confines of the mind's
Oval Office, purified of imperial ambition:
for what is a poet but a humble supplicant in the halls
of power, hunched along the definitions of amplitude
handed down through generations? Dante's grimness,
Milton's prophecy, Byron's vigor, an order of
fetish and surfeit laid out for inspection,
like the spoils of empire.
I pay no heed to gossip
about your reality. You are real and fine and wholesome,
intact like the workhorse columns holding up this building,
as I too, morning after morning, set aside the family
resemblances between me and my forerunners,
and settle down to the task of honing that one word,
the aperture to the light between two worlds,
that will reveal myself to myself.
Mr. President, the poet who is angry and sad,
bereft of the image of his humble pajama-clad existence,
striving to knock the windmills of ideology,
is thankfully a beast neither you nor I have to tackle.
I am the least among equals,
an ordinary scribe, raising my arms at the passing
centuries, a pleasant stationmaster
making no grab for glory.
By Elizabeth Alexander
Some of us have laundry to wash,
some of us have hair to bind and cudgel,
others will patch the family's hearth,
and yet others will hollow sage registries
so that past brigandage might be possible
again in dream. Dream that I
(regardless of channel-switching Rodney King-unease)
plaster on the walls of my New Haven one-woman apartment
the death of my youthful no-nonsense partner
hunting me in the street,
screaming at my unstrapped hair,
walking in my blue shadow
like Coltrane's broken mind.
Dream that I awaken into Cleopatra's arms,
Alexandria and Lagos and Durban,
Nelson Mandela's twenty-seven years of prison
and my sight-unseen acceptance of the gift of time,
which I hereby revoke.
Or rather, I give it to the girl who needs it more,
my little sister floating in a bubble,
grape-sized, hand-washed, raisin-teethed,
an illustration of endless migration
from Chicago to Chicago.
Dream that I,
on an ordinary morning like inauguration day,
when the world took a walk around the block
and found the very walls smiling on reality,
can at last bow before collapsing doors,
and find the wandering neighbor at home,
not exactly needing me (in her elderly music of dementia)
but willing to break bread
over noiseless grants of merit.
Letter to Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Dear TSE (as you like to be called, evoking a predecessor of those initials):
We appreciate your nomination for the White House poetry reading, but regret to inform you that you will not be one of the selected poets. This is not a judgment of your poetry by any means, and certainly you should feel free to apply next year. It's not unknown for a poet to be invited on subsequent tries, though at the moment we're hard pressed to think of an example. We had an interesting time puzzling over Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems. It's hard to classify this book. Frankly, we don't know where you're coming from. And that's a problem.
For instance, you title one of your poems "Presidential Blackness [A Race Fearlessness Manifolk Destiny]." The title alone is problematic. We don't want donors to get the wrong idea. As you know, we live in a post-racial society, so the title just brings up wrong associations. You start the poem, "We miracles. We have not known true freedom in / America or in Art, thus our work has struggled in / containers not of our own construction." Speak for yourself, buddy! The President got to where he is not because of miracles. It was hard work, make no mistake about it. In the same poem, you write, "To make an identity repair-kit of all black folk / behavior, to shine or show-off, as nuisance as / nuance, sometimes some-timey and sometimes on- / point, the slanguage of hood ornaments." We have no idea what you're talking about. First of all, who is this "all black folk?" Who are you--or anyone--to judge such an abstraction? Secondly, are you saying that black people are in need of repair? Who's going to undertake this repair? TSE, the current era is a time of healing national differences. The repairs have already been made.
Your long poem, "Mr. Dynamite Splits [ James Joseph Brown, Jr.]"--We have a feeling Michelle would have a problem with these lines: "Your eeeeeeeeeeyow will never rest. / You remain proud, cold bodyheat and sweat, / that muthafucka Black Caesar, / the only one who ever murdered dying." Black Caesar is not terminology we like to use around these precincts. Who is the audience for this poem?
We actually do like your "Race Inauguration Day [A Short Fiction]." Sort of. You write, "So we skinned ourselves, / zipper down the body middle, / right there on the National Mall, / the moment the poet, / cold as her tone, enjambed America with "Love."" So this is on the whole wholesome. But there is too much of a dialectic going on, to use that old-fashioned college jargon. It seems like something has been fought over, something won, something is in balance. Where does that feeling come from? It's not the kind of thing we want to convey even in subtle hints. The past is a foreign country. We've moved on. So should the country.
Finally, we know that neither Michelle nor the President would care for "Wacko Jacko." The poor guy is dead. Can we all move on? You write: "Lips, a tattoo, not a relief but a permanent painting of a kiss. / Predators, like female owls, in both eyes. / Mouth, a sharp snake. Snake, a pale cave. / The wildlife in the songs comes from / the same venom stubble comes from, testosterone, the body's land / of seized porn." Just very, very offensive to Michael Jackson's memory. Why would we want to inflame the passions of those who already hate Michael Jackson by releasing--sorry, reading--this poem at the White House?
In short, we appreciate your work as one of America's finest young African American poets and wish you much success in your future endeavors. Feel free to get in touch with any suggestions, comments, or feedback. We love feedback. Also, the President's reelection campaign is on. If you'd like to contribute, go to the website. We appreciate small contributions from small donors, just like you! And remember, poetry and the arts serve to enlighten and uplift the people, not obfuscate matters by getting into needless complexities. So here's to clarity!
White House Social Secretary
More:Poetry At The White House White House African American Literature Obama Inauguration Billy Collins
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more