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Poetry Radio Project

Poet and President-elect Obama

Larissa Anderson

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Poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott
(Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
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President-elect Barack Obama has a lot of writers excited about the next four years. He'll have a poet at his inauguration. He's said he's going to have more poetry readings at the White House. He's even quoted poetry on the campaign trail. In the speech he gave on Super Tuesday, Obama said, "We are the ones we've been waiting for." That line is from June Jordan's "Poem for South African Women." Nobel laureate Derek Walcott has been thinking about what it means to have a president who reads poetry. He talked with Weekend America's Larissa Anderson.

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A few days after the election, poet and playwright Derek Walcott saw a picture in the paper of Barack Obama carrying around a copy of his collected poems. Walcott says he was flattered, "But for me, what that means is it's nothing to do with me so much as a fact if you have a president who reads poetry, there's hope because poetry tries to tell the truth."

Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia, an island that used to belong to the British Empire. His grandfather was a white plantation-owner from Barbados. His grandmothers were descended from slaves. A lot of his writing is about being caught between cultures.

Walcott says it's good for people in power to read poetry because human beings are complex and contradictory, and poetry can capture that. Like in Langston Hughes' poem "Theme for English B" when the black student writes to his white teacher, "Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you. / But we are, that's true!" Or in Walt Whitman's line, "I am large -- I contain multitudes."

Walcott likes the idea of a president who reads poetry and thinks about this kind of human truth. Someone who can see beyond the act of political posturing.

"There's a deeper truth in the contradictions that exist in poetry than there is in foreign policy. Foreign policy changes with generations. One generation you're the enemy of Japan, the next you're the friend of Germany and so it's never stable. Who are our enemies and when are they our enemies? You can't deal with those lies, there's a deeper truth in there."

For Walcott, politics and poetry are a natural pair. He wrote his latest poem for Obama. The title, "Forty Acres," refers to the "forty acres and a mule" offered to slaves after emancipation. That offer was revoked. And the phrase came to represent a broken promise of equality.

"The way I knew [the poem] was going to perhaps finish itself was finding the rhyme which sometimes happens in a poem, like crowd and plowed. Once that happened, I saw the furrow that the plow had made. Same thing as if say a limousine were going through a crowd it would make a furrow of a kind and the turnover of the dirt would be the separation of people before the president's car, which of course becomes a plow, so the idea of the design of the whole endeavor of the plowing becomes the endeavor of shaping the flag, with all the states, confederate and union together, led by this plowman who is the young president."

Walcott draws on the history of slavery in his poem for Obama. But, he says Americans shouldn't make a big deal of the fact that they elected their first black president.

"What is there to celebrate to say that he's black and he's a president. The celebration is a contradiction of the belief. The statement is all men are created equal, but when they become president, you say 'Oh, we've got a black president.' How can they be equal if that's the case?"

He says they should focus on the kind of person Obama is, and celebrate that their next president is courteous, dignified and he reads poetry.

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A line from June Jordan's "Poem for South African Woman" showed up in the campaign speech President-elect Obama gave to supporters on Super Tuesday.

Poem for South African Women

Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
fertile
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world

The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire

And the babies cease alarm as mothers
raising arms
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open eye

And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
if necessary
even under the sea:

we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Copyright 2005 June Jordan Literary Estate trust; reprinted by permission. www.junejordan.com

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  • By Carmela Ruby

    From CA, 01/03/2009

    Dear all of us, look how much we learned from the connections made by 2 poets,their poems,Obama and us.Folded together in the very way Americans desperately need...in art. So much more powerful and deep than political cant, unsteady,shifty and superficial.I shall remember "We are the ones we have been waiting for" forever,and act by it.I cannot remember last week's headline but I have new ideas to plough.

    By A Ponder

    01/03/2009

    I am already wary of the attribution of every possibly 'positive' quality to Obama, even when some of these qualities are ones which he does not even possess.
    DO you want a person holding the presidential office who will see to it that the needs of all citizens are served, or do American citizens want a nicely and neatly packaged commercial brand and fashion statement to the world and the rest of the country. When will people learn that superficial qualities are not the basis on which you gather understanding of a person. Exterior qualities may be signals to aspects within, but they are not the definite evidence for the existence of these aspects. I feel as if we are now suffering through a type of delusionment similar to that held by many Americans during Bush's reign. THere were people during that time who actually partially justified their vote for him by saying that they felt that Bush was someone just like them, the "kind of guy you could have a beer with". Well, that potential drinking buddy sent some of those very same individuals' children off to war and plunged the country into two wars which have aided the financial crisis we are currently in. Some of those same Bush supporters may now be unemployed, some may have even lost their homes to foreclosure. So you better watch that your new (so-thought)cultural sophisticate comrade does not do you disservice(He is only a politician).(Stop waging culture wars. These tend to leave people bankrupt.)

    By Bill Fenstermaker

    From Lebanon, PA, 01/03/2009

    While using & loving poetry CAN indicate dignity, wisdom, & knowledge; it COULD also indicate someone knows that warm sounds, kind words, & positive tones are the best tools to manipulate emotions & desires.

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