A few days ago I got an email from my friend Sandra Jackson-Opuku, a Chicago novelist, pointing out that the blogosphere was all ablaze about who should be the inaugural poet. Sandra said she is nominating Chicago poet and attorney Ginger Mance.
"Ginger had a central role in protesting a media decision to "black-out" Senator Obama's convention speech back in 2004. She was also a campaign volunteer on his presidential campaign," Sandra wrote. "I'm impressed with both her tireless work on behalf of Obama's candidacy in many of his political races, and the considerable poetic talent demonstrated in "Awakened Sun," a praise poem written for Obama on his election to US Senate."
I gave Sandra suggestion some thought, then thought about other possible poets who would speak to the times should Barack decide to have a bard at his inaugural. I even checked out some of the suggestions out in cyberspace. After thinking long and hard, and loving to be the contrarian commentator I sometimes am, I chose William "Smokey" Robinson. My commentary was posted on ebonyjet.com this morning.
Obama's Inaugural Poet
only one man is right for the job
December 9, 2008
By Monroe Anderson
We should have known it was a bad sign when there was no poetry at George W. Bush’s swearing in as president in 2000 and again four years later. Bill Clinton, the smarter and more competent predecessor to Bush, had two. Maya Angelou read her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," at Clinton's 1992 inaugural. Four years later, Arkansas poet Miller Williams read his verse, "Of History and Hope" at Clinton's second swearing in. Robert Frost, John F. Kennedy's inaugural poet, was the first.
On January 20, during the ceremony when he is sworn in as POTUS, Obama should have a national wordsmith step forward as the warm-up act. Someone to signal that we're trying something new before the soul-stirring words Obama will serve up during his acceptance speech to inspire a nation. Like Obama, that poet should be exceptional. Exceptional poets are out there. Names like Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, poetry slam champion Patricia Smith and that great American songwriter who is one of Obama's favorite musicians, Bob Dylan.
All those poets are good but, in my opinion, not quite good enough. There's only one American poet great enough and big enough and beloved enough to share the stage with Barack Obama when he swears in next month. That man is the Poet Laureate of Soul—William "Smokey" Robinson.
Dylan has called Smokey "the greatest poet" of our times. Unlike Robert Frost, whose poem, "The Gift Outright," which was read at Kennedy's inaugural and turned out to be a white-privilege paean to the principles of Manifest Destiny, Smokey's poetry is an ode to the common man. His prose provides pragmatic inspiration to every American from Joe the Plumber to George the President.
Smokey has not only written about love won and love lost, but American employment and unemployment. The lyrics to "Got a Job" plaintively sums up the plight of having a minimum wage gig. His "Abraham Martin and John" lyrics were American social observation at its purest. And the lyrics to "Shop Around" are way better advice than Bush's post-911 edict that Americans be about the business of serious consumption to show the terrorists that they could not undermine our economy.
Like the Spoken Word poem, "A Black American," that he performed live on Def Poetry Jam, Smokey could do a new but similar verse that would educate the nation about its African roots and its diverse, multi-cultural future.
Or he could just sing his poetry. We know the man can sing what he writes. In the 50 years that he's been out there, Smokey boasts a song catalog of 4,000 tunes with 36 Top 10 hits.
Plus, with Smokey, there's a bunch of material Obama can draw from and expand on in his inaugural speech. He could take "Quiet Storm" and discuss the economic climate we're in right now. Or Smokey could sing an updated, make-it-plain version of "Who's Gonna Take the Blame" to remind us how Washington's old school politics propelled our nation to this moment of change. Or, Smokey could stick with the upbeat mood at Obama's inaugural with a "Goin’ to a Go-Go"-inspired rhyme reminding us that the good times are about to begin.
And, since George W. Bush didn't have a poet at his inauguration, Smokey's appearance could represent the transformation from chump to change. And as Bush is overcome with emotion watching Obama take his place, a few lines from "Tears of a Clown" should second that emotion.
Monroe Anderson is an award-winning journalist who penned op-ed columns for both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Check out his blog at monroeanderson.typepad.com
UPDATE: My friend, Dawoud Bey was right. As Bey predicted in the comments section on this blog, Elizabeth Alexander has been named the inaugural poet. Small wonder. She's Obama's buddy and yet one more of his Ivy League prof and/or alum selections. I still believe that Smokey would have been a better choice. Sure Alexander was a finalist for 2005 Pulitzer prize for poetry but Smokey is a 2006 Kennedy Center Honoree. That makes Alexander predictable while Smokey would have been the change we need.
Here's a YouTube video of Smokey's Def Poetry Jam performance.