On May 11th President Obama and the First Lady hosted an evening of poetry and music at the White House, the second of such events since the President has been in office (clips of the first event held in 2009 can be found on the White House's YouTube page).
In his address to the audience before the show, President Obama described how poetry exists outside the boundaries of time, how poems are universal in their ability to convey and connect with emotion regardless of how much time separates their date of creation from their audience. "Whenever our nation has faced great tragedy," he said, "whether it was the loss of a civil rights leader, the crew of a space shuttle, or the thousands of Americans that were lost on a clear September day, we've turned to poetry when we can't find quite the right words to express what we're feeling."
Since the President alluded to poetry's resilience to time, it is fitting that the group chosen to perform that night included both older poets like Rita Dove and Billy Collins (former United States Poet Laureates) and newer, like singer-songwriter-poet-actress Jill Scott and hip-hop emcee Common (though Common's involvement was embroiled in controversy before the show, aptly rendered in the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, his performance was actually excluded from the recording above because of licensing issues. It can be found below).
The event also included performances from students Moira Bass and Youssef Biaz (the First lady also held a poetry workshop for students earlier that day), poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Alison Knowles, as well as musical performances by Aimee Mann and Steve Martin.
The entire evening was amazing, but what was most interesting about the event was how every performer, young and older, was able to reach the audience on a personal level. For instance, Rita Dove's poems "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967" and "Heart to Heart" roused as many sighs of pleasure and admiration from the audience as Jill Scott's own untitled piece about love and self-expression. There are decades that separate the works of Dove and Scott, yet both wrote similar pieces that people can identify with in similar ways, exemplifying the kind of universality poetry has both emotionally and temporally.
The highlight of the evening was being able to witness evidence that this universality indeed exists in poetry (or art in general), a field too often fragmented into various "periods" defined by whatever themes or tendencies were common in writing at that moment in history. Add to that the diversity of different "styles" or "forms" and you seem to end up with a literary grab-bag that is more black hole than universal, more intimidating than familiar. The event at the White House shattered this notion of inaccessibility, proving that even if one is not a poet, he or she can still be moved by words tuned to the key of poetry.
This point was driven home by the remarkable performances of Bass and Biaz, students in eighth and twelfth grade, respectively. Bass performed an original piece titled "Shana" while Biaz recited "Mrs. Krikorian" by Sharon Olds. While Olds' poem isn't terribly old, it was very intriguing to see the immediate juxtaposition of a poem written by someone in eighth grade and another written by an older, accomplished poet. This image was compounded by the fact that Olds' poem was recited by Biaz, who is only a senior in high school himself. The moment seemed to epitomize poetry's durability and flexibility, showing that it has not only evolved to fit the the pen of an eighth grader, but also that its older voices still speak loud enough to influence those who are merely beginning to study it. Besides being a wonderful performance, then, this night of poetry at the White House proved that poetry is not only alive and well, but thriving.
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