Friday, January 23, 2009

Oath of Office

Poet Frank Bidart writes about the odd and confounding ritual of issuing in a new President with "Inauguration Poem", a skimpy, momentarily evocative lyric that promises to deliver a moral but evaporates on the breeze instead. Just as well, really, since these slight stanzas are murmurings instead of exclamations, whispers rather than shouts. Bidart wants to write about the unnamed expectations come to be focused on the taking of the oath. With or without the new president's hand on the Bible, the varieties of disappointment will reign soon enough; even a god would have trouble solving every citizen's concern and dissolving each citizens unease with the empty sound that attends every step. There are no laws against loneliness. This is poem dwells on the idea that what we're actually dealing with as we witness an inauguration is ritual meant to stir ghosts; the past is present and constantly influencing the future, as the sage remarked, and Bidart attempts to isolate some elements of the allure that attracts the best and worst of us. It's a collective point where headstrong notions of putting things right which have strayed off course , grossly so, in the presence of a president who'll mount an assault on erring policies and social injustice, a public that desires a change in direction, the sociopaths, the malcontents, the would-be assassins who want to strike a blow against the organized brutality the state and the institutions have made his or her world.

Today, despite what is dead
staring out across America I see sinceLincoln gunmennursing fantasies of purity betrayed,dreaming to restorethe glories of their blood and state...

Expectation, hope, rage, rebellion, collective will--a noisy, bickering mess trying to sort itself out and praying for consensus as the new man takes an oath to do his best. Sometimes we make the right choice, history seems to smile and matters work themselves out in ways that amaze us and perhaps make us aware of a hesitant miracle taking place. Too soon, though, our basic interest, our native centers of concern, take credit for the good, we lay blame too easily outside our sphere, we destroy Eden once again with our will to have our way.

under the lustrous flooding moonthe White House is stillWhitman's White House, itsgorgeous frontfull of reality, full of illusion

There is always the chance to start over, though, this work in progress--this is a government as the boulder we roll up the hill, only to start over once it rolls down again. That seems the center essence of democracy quite despite what Presidents have to say about it--we are and will continue to clean up the mess we've made of things, to contend with the bad hands we've been dealt, the sorry slices of pie we've been served. It's not about the getting, it's about the doing, and the specters Bidart invokes at the margins serve to compel us to keep the wretched machine humming along.


  1. Anonymous5:38 PM PST

    I'll confess--as a professor of English who specializes in something else--to not knowing Frank Bidart's poetry, but from the small bit you've invoked, I'd say that he's a True Believer of a distinctly pre-Age-of-Obama sort. He bows to, and curses, the great Moloch that is/was the American State. He's no utopian, and I'm sure he's proud of that fact. But he's also.....old. He's voicing the Left's version of the paranoid style in American politics. I was a Nation intern and appreciate this. But as a musician, I'm also appreciate the way in which the New is invariably greeted by the Old with doubt, distrust, a fundamentally conservative reminder that What We've Been grounds and determines us.
    No it doesn't. Or at least it doesn't do so all of the time and comprehensively. Thank God. If you listened to Derek Bell (FACES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL), there wasn't any way--not ANY way--that Barack Obama could have become President. American history wouldn't allow it. But it did. We did. The shock of the new still shocks, and leads old poets to make fools of themselves.

  2. Anonymous5:40 PM PST

    That should be "I also appreciate the way in which the New...."


  3. I agree that Bidart prides himself on his old left view of the State; short of the Revolution, government, benign or malicious , can only enslave and exploit. There is an automatic, knee jerk cynicism to the idea that government can solve problems and make things better for Americans. As it goes, he sounds like he's attempting to seemed bored and bemused by the whole spectacle. The poem , which I like as a piece, seems something that would come out through a contrived yawn, a warning, a phrase that gets lost in needless sounds echoing from an open mouth.

  4. "There are no laws against loneliness" -- this is a subtle rebuttal of Barry Gibb's wish (as expressed in his song "Guilty) to "make it a crime to be lonely or sad." We must arm ourselves against the encroachment of Post-Disco Fascism demanding that we get happy or else.


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