White House Poetry Event Mired in Controversy

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May 11, 2011; Source: Washington Post | Michelle Obama and Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes convened an evening of poetry and folk music at the White House last night. Of course, the White House can’t escape controversy with the likes of the less-than-poetic Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck – all looking for something to criticize.

Before the event, they and various Republicans such as Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, were in full attack mode. Comedian/musician Steve Martin, former poets laureate Billy Collins and Rita Dove, and singer Aimee Mann escaped criticism.

The critics took aim at the inclusion of Grammy Award-winning rapper Common, critiqued for lyrics that according to his critics celebrate violence, though his fans think his raps are more socially and politically conscious than the misogynistic oeuvre of some of his rapper colleagues. Maybe the Republicans don’t keep up with rap.

If they had ever listened to the latest from Waka Flocka Flame, Kanye West, or Lil Wayne, they might have put Common in charge of a Sunday School class. Maybe without Common, they might have criticized Steve Martin, but they didn’t want to take the risk of attacking someone who plays the banjo.

Of course, in a nation that is increasingly bereft of poetry, they missed the importance of the event – the release of the report of the President’s Council on the Arts and the Humanities, supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (PDF), calling for a new national commitment to investing in arts education.

Did Rove, Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and Hannity bother to read the report? Or were they deafened by the force of Common’s performance? There is a link to the poetry event viewable at the White House website so you can judge for yourself about the danger embedded in the invitation of Common to the White House.—Rick Cohen

  • James Charles

    Next these guys will be hyper critical of White House proclamations of the National Day of Prayer… Oh wait, that is the liberals blinded rage of something that is similarly devoid of danger.

  • Brandt Hardin

    Palin and FOX only say what they think their audience wants to hear as far as Neocon propaganda. This imprudent commentary has caused damage to the world view of America including critical comments such as this which expose not only racism and bigotry but the obtuse world-view of the people this kind of rhetoric seems fit to represent. I was compelled to create a visual commentary about this very thing on my artist

  • rick cohen

    Dear James: There is a small difference between an evening of poetry at the White House, even one that includes the rapper Common, and the official proclamation of a National Day of Prayer. One doesn’t have to be “hyper critical” or “blinded [by] rage” to suggest that the National Day of Prayer raises questions of the separation between church and state.

    I don’t believe that there is a constitutional prohibition against poetry from the President’s Office, and in any case, the First Lady doesn’t seem to have proclaimed an official poetry day. But don’t we wish that were were some greater dose of poetry in politics? Remember the days when presidents like Kennedy and Reagan could actually quote poetry from memory? Boy, I remember Robert Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration. Remember when LBJ’s primary opposition, Wisconsin Senator Gene McCarthy, began a campaign speech with an extended quote–from memory–of Walt Whitman’s “Blades of Grass” (McCarthy wrote his own surprisingly good poetry too)?

    JFK once said, “”When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” Archibald MacLeish said, “Journalism is concerned with events, poetry with feelings. Journalism is concerned with the look of the world, poetry with the feel of the world.