High Rhymes & Misdemeanors

Not your grandmother's poetry in the White House

By Robert A. George
|  Friday, May 15, 2009  |  Updated 3:54 AM EDT
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The Obama Presidency in Photos

First lady Michelle Obama participates in "an evening of poetry, music and the spoken word" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 12.

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A "Poetry Slam" in the White House?  What are the Obamas doing to this country?  

What on earth was going on in there?  Can't you just imagine it? 

What will we tell the children?
How will they be feelin'?
When all this comes to light
Will that House still be White?

Is this another possible end-of-civilization moment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?  Not quite. 

But, yes, the president and first lady did host the White House's first Poetry Slam this week, with a guest list that included high school students who heard everything from rap soliloquies to Shakespearean sonnets.  

For people with memories of Robert Frost offering up a poem at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural, this might be troubling.  For those folks not so impressed with Maya Angelous' s "Rock, River, Paper, Scissors" (or something like that) back at the Clinton Inaugural in 1993, this may sound even more disastrous. 

But, in truth, this turned out not to be some ersatz profane "Def Comedy Jam," but instead a rich and broad event highlighting the true cultural diversity of the nation. The actual title of the event was, "An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word."

Performers included James Earl Jones, whose career has spanned The Great White Hope  to Roots to the voices of Darth Vader and CNN;  author Michael Chabon, who incorporated the real-life Jewish roots of the American comic book industry into his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Kavalier & ClayLin-Manuel Miranda, who created and starred in last year's Tony Award-winning Dominican-flavored Best Musical, In The Heights (and who also provided the Spanish translations for this year's remake of West Side Story) and a 24-year old stand-up bass-playing recipient of a Boston Jazz Society Scholarship. 

What this shows is the power of the presidency extends far beyond dealing with the varied domestic and foreign policy "problems" of the nation.  The office allows the person holding it to take a snapshot of the nation and bring what he sees into "the people's house." The Kennedys thought it important to bring poetry onto the inaugural stage.  Two generations later, the Obamas saw the importance of bringing in the even more complex and diverse cultural stew of contemporary America into the White House. 

Far from bringing down the status of the White House, events such as this elevate America's contemporary artistic forms, in much the same way that jazz eventually became seen as the nation's classical music.  

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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