Politics and Poetry
Chris Watkins | January 13, 2009
It’s not too late to get in on the poetry action for January, with Elizabeth Alexander in the news as the poet who will be featured at Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 19. Whether you decide on a book display featuring Alexander and other past inaugural poets (there are only three others!) or a live program, there seem to be a lot of options. There’s even a website trying to organize 100 readings on the day at libraries and other sites around the country.
The media is full of starting points for discussion and programming. A podcast on the NPR website offers some ideas for who might have been asked to read at Lincoln’s inaugural, while others opine that poetry should stem from private inspiration, not public ceremony. Teaching websites offer lesson plans and other ideas for working with K–12 students, but are easily adapted for adult audiences, too. Ask your local elected officials whom they’d ask to read at their inauguration, or get literature teachers to speculate on appropriate poets for past or future inaugurals.
If you can’t get a program organized in time for the inauguration, consider post-inaugural poetry events with a political twist. After Illinois’ impeached governor, Rod Blagovich, quoted Kipling and Tennyson in his recent news conferences, the Chicago Tribune published excerpts from W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, John Milton, and Robert Burns, all applicable to the governor’s current woes.
Check out Elizabeth Alexander’s website and these other links to get your political poetry series started, and do share your results with firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elizabeth Alexander’s website
E. Ethelbert Miller talks about Civil War era poets on Liane Hansen’s Sunday Morning, January 4, 2009
“The Intersection of Poetry and Politics,” New York Times, December 24, 2008
“Bards at the Inaugural Gates,” Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2009
“Presidential Poetry,” New Yorker, December 18, 2008
“More Poetry for Rod Blagojevich,” Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2009
Background information on the three previous poets who read at inaugurations, with activities for students
Chris Watkins is Chicago-based consultant specializing in nonprofit fundraising.