John Dolan on Richard Blanco: “Why is it that poetry only rears its zombie head when we elect a democrat?”


John Dolan (The Poetry Desk) posted a droll commentary on the relationship between U.S. politics and the poetry of Richard Blanco, calling him “another bad poet” and “a Cuban-American workshop poet dull and cautious enough even for the Obama administration.” Here are excerpts:

Why is it that poetry only rears its zombie head when we elect a Democrat? I don’t recall any linebreaks during the Bush years; the GOP doesn’t seem to want that kind of high-culture ballast. The Democrats, though, perhaps because of their link to the academic world, keep dragging out the poets—to be seen, more than heard. The only one who’s really stuck in most Americans’ memory is Robert Frost, who read “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s inaugural, lending his craggy profile to the occasion. [. . .]

The Laureate’s job in this country is much easier. We don’t want to hear anything out of any American poet other than a reiteration of the poet’s demographic identity. This can be as ridiculous as you can imagine, and we’ll still buy it; Whitman started the joke by insisting that he was, literally, every damn man, woman, and child in these United States. With the increasing sophistication of electoral techniques, the poet’s job has been to represent a particular demographic.

JFK’s inauguration, the crowning of a worryingly young, and even more worryingly Catholic, president, called for a poet who could incarnate the old, Eastern Protestant stock; enter Robert Frost, self-invented New England farmer. Frost’s identity, like that of many practitioners of identity politics and poetics, was a fraud; he was the child of a bohemian San Francisco family. But Frost looked the part, which is the important thing, and did his job, reassuring the nervous Evangelicals that JFK’s election was “a triumph of Protestantism—over itself.” [. . .] And now here we are again, as fresh as a bunch of amnesiac daisies, at Obama’s second-term inauguration, listening to “the Inaugural poet,” a gay Cuban-American named Richard Blanco. In a sense, I could end this article right there, because that’s all the appearance of Blanco consisted of — the epithet “gay Cuban-American.” Nobody’s going to know anything more than that, even after he’s said his piece, because nobody can actually read poetry in this country. His job was to be a registered poet with the most urgently needed demographics.

As it happens, I won’t end the article here because it’s just plain fun to look over a typical Richard Blanco poem, “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha” and see what “poem” means for a practicioner of absolutely pure identity poetics, unsullied by one single stray thought or original turn of phrase. So here’s the perfect expression of that genre, a true parakeet of parakeets, Blanco’s “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha.”

I arrive with a box of pastelitos,
a dozen red carnations, and a handful
of memories at her door…

If you have any familiarity with contemporary American poetry, you know this poem. You can read the whole thing if you want, but if you’ve ever been in a poetry workshop you’ve read it dozens of times—in fact, some of you have probably written it a few times yourselves. [. . .] Blanco’s poem about the dying relative makes no claim to abuse, of course. It’s not necessary, because the Hispanic identity Blanco’s reinforcing here has value in itself. “Fastest-growing demographic in the US,” as every headline was saying after the election whose result Blanco is commemorating. If you know much about identity poetics, you’d probably risk a bet that Blanco’s actual identity is far closer to the American elite and far less close to those warm Cuban roots than he wants you to believe. And this is, of course, the case. Blanco was born in Spain in 1968, and raised in a well-to-do Florida household, visiting Cuba exactly once in his youth.

[. . .] Blanco’s safe, though; his stand on Obama’s podium represents success in itself and as our folk proverb—one of the nastiest in the world—tells us over and over again, “You can’t argue with success.” JFK was no more a typical working-class Cat’lic than Blanco is a typical Mexican or Central American migrant. Even if his alleged Cuban identity passed all tests, it wouldn’t necessarily imply solidarity with the mainly Mexican and Central-American immigrant demographic, any more than it has for Cuban-American politicians like Marco Rubio. Blanco, though, has another identity which is valuable in the ceremonial thanks the reelected administration bestows on its supporters: he’s gay. This is not explicit in “Unspoken Elegy…” but it is a huge part of Blanco’s public profile, so much so that he has a coming-out story on Huffington Post timed to coincide with his Inauguration performance.

[. . .] The title, “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha,” not only announces that this will be the seven-millionth poem by an ambitious American poet on a dead relative, but stakes the ethnic claim as well by the use of “Tia Cucha.” What’s interesting about Blanco’s use of Spanish words and phrases in his poetry is that it’s clearly designed for an English-only audience. [. . .] The first line is as formulaic as the title: simple-present tense narration meant to be understood as past, with the Spanish noun “pastelitos,” no challenge for any urban speaker of American English, contextualized fully by the time it occurs at the end of the line.

The rest of the poem is strictly by the workshop numbers: Blanco’s visit to his dying aunt triggers memories of earlier visits, which allow him to link the aunt, and thus himself, to Cuba: “…scenes of old Havana” and “…a bridge to Cuba.” There are the inevitable hints of her impending demise, always in the simple present tense, “I ask her how she’s feeling, but we agree not to talk about that today.” And then the payoff for the poet, the long peroration in which Blanco reminds us that the aunt exists only as long as he, the poet, commemorates her, and will be dead very shortly except in Shakespeare’s familiar old black ink: “She too/will vanish, except for what/I remember of her.” Fade into the detailed description of flower:

…flowers in a tumbler–a dozen red
suns burst in the sapphire sky framed
in the window, sitting by the table…

aaaaaand cut.

This brief template works for most of Blanco’s poems, which are in fact remarkable only for the utter blandness of their language — almost dull enough to be presidential, in fact.

But why not put somebody who can write up there, Gustavo Aurellano or Edwin Torres? How did poetry become the most insignificant slave of the most priggish, dull, sanctimonious, official wing of ethnic discourse? South Park can splatter this stuff all over the screen without being priggish; The Simpsons can do it and be downright saintly and funny at the same time, like Francis of Assisi doing stand-up; why does the poetry version have to be so stiff, so dull, so pious, so utterly fake? And why, god damn it, does the chosen inaugural poet have to be perhaps the dullest of all the dull poets who ever infested the wastelands of Iowa?

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