January 21, 2009

Presidential and Imperial poetry

The general consensus seems to be that Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem struck the one hollow note during the proceedings.

Rick Warren's bombasticity made me cringe. Joseph Lowery made me grin. The Chief Justice's flub was comic human fallibility. (I think aides should ceremoniously hold up copies of the Constitution for both parties to read from.)

But Alexander's effort was obviously written to be printed in an obscure literary journal. As Adam Kirsch observes in The New Republic, "Her verse is not public but bureaucratic--spoken by no one and addressed to no one."

Presidential inaugurals should follow the example of the Japanese Emperor and use waka-style poetry. The Emperor's year-end and New Year's poem readings feature short, topical verse often relevant to the lives of his subjects.

Granted, when the poems are formally read aloud, they are orated in a classical style that is incomprehensible to my ears. But the text is helpfully displayed on the television screen.

And while we're at it, the Emperor's State of the Japanese Union address runs (in English) a whole 180 words. Another good precedent to follow.

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