Poet and President-elect ObamaJANUARY 3, 2009
- Poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott
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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.
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 That offer was revoked.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.
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
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
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
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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