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Who Will Be Obama's Inaugural Poet?

01/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Associated Press reported last week on a growing expectation in the poetry community that Obama will follow in the tradition of Kennedy, Carter and Clinton and invite a poet to read at next month's inauguration. Tree Swenson, the executive director of the Academy of American Poets, explained why it's a good bet:

"Given that he is so eloquent himself and so tuned to words, the assumption is that, of course, he will have a poet..."

Anyone who's heard Obama speak can see how acutely he is "tuned to words," but he has some clearer ties to poetry. In March of last year, Steven Barrie-Anthony, here at The Huffington Post, uncovered two poems that Obama wrote and published in a literary magazine at Occidental College at the age of 19. Here's an excerpt from "Pop":

Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;

"Pop" is a good effort for a young poet. It shows an ear for the music of language (which isn't surprising) and an understanding of the importance of using strong, specific images. The good news for poetry is that it's proof that Obama has studied, and probably appreciates, the art. So it wasn't all that surprising when this past Sunday, on Meet the Press, Obama mentioned his interest in opening up the White House to poetry readings as a symbol of a renewed national focus on the arts.

So who might his inaugural poet be? There has been some media buzz that Maya Angelou might reprise her appearance at the 1993 Clinton inauguration. The recent AP article mentioned a few more names being tossed about: Robert Pinsky, Yusef Komunyakaa, current poet laureate Kay Ryan, and Philip Levine.

Levine might be the most poignant choice, given the country's current economic struggles. Raised in a blue collar family in Detroit, Levine writes poetry that champions the working man. Here's an excerpt from his poem "Drum," which begins by describing a blue-collar scene:

We sit
for lunch on crates before the open door.
Bobeck, the boss's nephew, squats to hug
the overflowing drum, gasps and lifts. Rain
comes down in sheets staining his gun-metal
covert suit. A stake truck sloshes off
as the sun returns through a low sky.
By four the office help has driven off. We
sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside
for a final smoke. The great door crashes
down at last.

Later in the poem, Levine conflates working class and classical imagery, making the scene seem heroic and even timeless.

...In the darkness
this could be a Carthaginian outpost sent
to guard the waters of the West, those mounds
could be elephants at rest, the acrid half light
the haze of stars striking armor if stars were out.
On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.

If Obama is concerned about the inauguration taking on a tone that's too ethereal for these tough economic circumstances, Levine's unpretentious writing might prove an effective foil. Levine's message suits Obama's focus on the middle class and on the hard work and sacrifice it will take to get through a deepening recession. It seems wise to choose a poet who has long lived that life and sung within it.