If you heard about the White House poetry event this past Wednesday, you probably heard about it for the wrong reasons. The decision to invite hip-hop artist and actor Common to read poetry drew a surprising amount of furor from the right. Former Bush senior advisor Karl Rove and Fox News host Sean Hannity, among others, offered their in-depth analysis of Common's lyrics, coming off like a couple of flustered freshmen in a poetry workshop. I suppose such strange distractions are to be expected in the weeks after your political enemy kills Osama bin Laden, but the Common silliness was unfortunate, as it tarnished what was otherwise a great day for poetry.
On Wednesday afternoon, Michelle Obama hosted a poetry workshop at the White House for 77 young poets who were flown to Washington for the event. The workshop featured former poets laureate Rita Dove and Billy Collins, and the inaugural poet (and friend of the President and First Lady) Elizabeth Alexander. The First Lady lauded the young poets for taking emotional risks and striving to connect, and she admitted that growing up, she leaned on her writing and was a bit of a poet herself. The professionals offered advice as well, most of it inspiring, and some more realistic, as when the always-entertaining Billy Collins quipped, "You shouldn't worry about whether you're good now. You probably aren't that good, but you'll get better. There is hope."
The President hosted a poetry reading that night and owned up to publishing a couple of poems in his college literary magazine (which you can read here). He also spoke well about the power of poetry:
Everybody experiences it differently. There are no rules for what makes a great poem. Understanding it isn't just about metaphor or meter. Instead, a great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us and that teaches us something about ourselves and the world that we live in. As Rita Dove says, 'If [poetry] doesn't affect you on some level that cannot be explained in words, then the poem hasn't done its job.'
The reading (which you can watch here) featured an eclectic collection of poets, including the aforementioned Dove and Collins, singer Aimee Mann and spoken word poet Jill Scott, who was just "really geeked" to be there. In case you're wondering, Common performed and did not attack America.
As the President put it, "poets have always played an important role in telling our American story." It's refreshing that, on Wednesday, he put the art form in the spotlight and let it speak.