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Literary Life

A Literary Wake for the Obama Era

4.28.17

Barack Obama listening to his advisors, in the Oval Office, April 2010.

Barack Obama listening to his advisors, in the Oval Office, April 2010.

Official White House photograph by Pete Souza


Barack Obama listening to his advisors, in the Oval Office, April 2010.

Official White House photograph by Pete Souza

The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” Walt Whitman claimed in the preface to Leaves of Grass. He went on: “Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”

Donald Trump’s election seems to have galvanized many American writers into fulfilling Whitman’s ideal. Certainly this renewed political energy has accelerated the usual publishing cycle, according to The New York Times: in January, the Boston Review released Poems for Political Disaster; Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance followed in March. Spiegel & Grau is preparing its own, more obliquely titled, response—How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times. Next month comes Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, from Knopf. Editor Amit Majmudar reported that 150 writers responded to his call for submissions—some within a few minutes.

Amid this chorus of emergency alarms and calls to action, the Harvard Review has offered a response in a strikingly different key: a tribute to President Obama, based on the traditional Japanese “renga” form, written collaboratively by more than 200 poets. “One of our unstated job descriptions to give praise, and to memorialize, and to elegize,” says the journal’s poetry editor, Major Jackson, RI ’07. For the “Renga for Obama,” he commissioned writers in pairs, often matching them up according to already-existing friendships or aesthetic affinities. One would supply a haiku (three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables respectively), and the second would respond with a “waki” (two lines, seven syllables each). Every day for the past three months, a new section of two stanzas, or “tan-renga,” was added to the ongoing chain.

Though the first verse went online the day after Trump was sworn in, Jackson says that he’d felt compelled to honor Obama well before his successor was declared in November. Throughout the 2016 campaign, “I was being overcome by his pall of disbelief, because I was so enamored of his style of leadership, what he represented within national politics, this voice of reason,” recalls Jackson. “It seemed to me that there was such a discord, or a disconnect, between the rhetoric of the election season and so much of what he stood for.”

He cites two sources of inspiration for this project. One was a book-length renga, Crossing State Lines, which gathered 54 poets into a tag-team conversation that touched on themes of empire, the housing foreclosure crisis, and war. The other was an online project, originally housed at 100dayspoems.blogspot.com, which started on the eve of Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg recruited poets who wanted to versify the state of the nation, and assigned each of them one of his first 100 days in office. The poems eventually were published in an anthology called Starting Today, referring to a line in the president’s inaugural address: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” 

“Renga for Obama” offers a mournful bookend to that hopeful project: an exquisite corpse that’s also a literary wake. Some of its contributors are openly plaintive. “Where is your voice guiding us/through rocky weather?” asks Naomi Shihab Nye. From Henri Cole: “Please come back when you are strong.” D. Nurkse implores, “Come back, young South Side lovers/who read Gandhi: rule again.” Others address Obama with humorous affection. “What big ears you have,/Mr. President!” exclaims Ron Padgett. In the next stanza, Robert Polito adds, “My Southie mother/would have loved you the way she/crushed on Kennedy.” The memory of Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney recurs several times; these sit alongside recent sightings of the president on vacation in Hawaii (“At home body surfing/In those violent blue waters”). “Michelle” shows up seven times; “cool” appears nine. Many of the tan-rengas draw on nature imagery—moonlight, water, leis—a hallmark of this poetic genre, and a reliable device for sublimating the writers’ angst or fatalistic doom. And while it seems to have been collectively agreed that the mechanics of governance make for bad verse, one poet, Eve Alexandra, brought in a Supreme Court case: “Obergefell v. Hodges,” seven tenderly rendered syllables taking up an entire line.

As it passes from hand to hand, says Jackson, the renga seems to take on each poet’s personality, “and I marvel at its ability to be as flexible in that regard.” At the same time, “Part of the reason that I chose the renga is because of the compression of the language,” he says. “Every word counts, every word matters. It would be very apparent where you encounter language that was in the service of some mere political view.”

He also imposed further limits. “I did exercise some editorial oversight—actually, quite a bit of editorial oversight,” Jackson allows. “Many times, I sent the poems back because they seemed to strike more of a note that corresponded with the division in public dialogue that we find ourselves in. So in those particular instances, I really had to remind the poets that this was our chance to celebrate a leader after his historic presidency. And so the spirit of celebration, I tried to massage the poets to lean in that direction.”

The project’s online introduction speculated that a new verse would be published “every day for the first 100 days—or maybe more!” of the Trump administration. Jackson says now, and firmly, that the renga will end this Saturday. (“It has been a serious amount of labor.”) The final contributor will be Jackson’s former teacher Sonia Sanchez, a poet and activist prominent in the Black Arts Movement. Her respondent is “an as yet to be confirmed literary figure that will be a surprise to everybody. If this person says yes, I’ll be thrilled,” he says. “Or it may be me.”

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