(The title is from a poet named Tao Lin in a collection called this emotion was a little e‑book).The Internet is like a small town, especially when there's something to disagree about. Recently, some of my favorite Internet citizens got into it over Obama's decision to have poetry at his inauguration.I've always liked George Packer, the New Yorker's man on the ground in the early days of Iraq. I devoured his book about the first year of the occupation, The Assassins' Gate. It tells the stories of a few Iraqis who put their necks on the line to support us when we arrived in 2003, and it comes to mind whenever a conversation turns to the need to find a way out of Iraq. I also read his blog, Interesting Times. He's the kind of journalist who always does his homework, which made it all the more puzzling when he somewhat flippantly criticized Barack Obama's decision to ask Elizabeth Alexander to read a poem at his inauguration:
For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings … [Ed.: Ouch.] … Obama's Inauguration needs no heightening. It'll be its own history, its own poetry.
Ouch. A blanket dismissal? The activity of "a few people?" I started writing a response to this, but Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic beat me to it. His blog rules. He called out Packer for being prematurely judgmental, and suggested that perhaps hip-hop lyrics were suitably rhythmic and emotive for the occasion. Yes.Lo and behold, Packer just posted what amounts to an apology, and he does so in the best way, comparing the current poetry scene to the NBA in the 1970s:
Contemporary American poetry has too many mansions to be summed up under a throwaway phrase like "private activity.â€ Its multitude of schools and forms is like the N.B.A. in the nineteen-seventies, when there was no dominant team but a confused contest of warring tribes. And I should have read more of Alexander's work than appears on her Web site, and more carefully, before expressing skepticism that she'll be equal to the occasion on January 20th.
So, the real question is: Who will be the David Stern of 21st century American poetry? Chris Fischbach, I'm looking at you.