Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Day Poetry Reached Its Zenith in the United States

January 20, 1961.

At the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Robert Frost read a poem. It was a large moment at the time. Frost had long been a famous person, and he had a history with Kennedy.

In 1959, Frost had predicted Kennedy would be the next president, and his statement made headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post. Kennedy went on to thank Frost for helping him with his campaign. Frost kept repeating his prediction at speaking events and Kennedy started quoting from "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

January 20, 1961. And that, I suggest, is the last time a poet impacted the United States in any remarkable and positive manner. Poetry itself seems to have fallen from great heights to the place where it resides in the national consciousness today.

In the 1960s, poets such as Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton emerged, crafting their emotionally searing verses. The dark side held poetry in its grip. All 3 of them eventually committed suicide. Imagine Plath reciting one of her poems at the inauguration of a president where the expected tone is one of optimism!

The 60s were a turning point in many ways. Persuasive arguments have been made that the mainstream media gradually switched from politically conservative to liberal, where it has remained to this day, after the assassination of JFK.

Today, it's unthinkable that any poet could have any sort of appreciable impact on a presidential election. Ask any presidential candidate of any party to name a great living poet, and odds are he or she couldn't come up with the name of any poet, good or bad, not even that of the current Poet Laureate. The same could be said for the general public. A TV reporter asking passersby in Times Square for the name of a current living poet wouldn't likely receive an accurate answer.

Frost was the first poet ever to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. Since then, presidents Clinton and Obama invited poets twice, for a grand total of 5 poets reciting their work at inaugurations.

It was thought poets, with their superior wordsmithing skills, might outshine the speech of the president, usurping his glorious moment. Surely that is no longer a concern, considering the poems delivered at Obama's festivities? I should think the question now is finding a poet with the ability to rise to the occasion. That's if future presidents even give any thought at all to including a poet, and if they do, that would mean it has become something considered necessary for a well-rounded event. And what man or woman capable of winning a national election doesn't want a poem written in his or her honor?

I've heard it said there is more poetry produced today than ever before. And that makes sense, since poetry is bound tightly to the academic world, and academics must "publish or perish." Most poetry is written in the service of an academic career and poems are composed to impress an academic, rather than a general, audience. Poets read it; the average person doesn't. Modern poetry is for specialists of the trade.

It could be a new Frost or Emily Dickinson is out there somewhere writing verses but has been lost amid the surfeit of mediocrity. But without evidence of such an imaginary person, that possibility seems as remote as a modern-day Bach, Beethoven or Mozart emerging in classical music. The mere thought is laughable.

Here is a link to Robert Frost's Author Page on Amazon.


Read my collection of short stories, "Queen of the Chess Cult and Other Stories"

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