White House Poetry Event Mired in Controversy

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