President Obama & Poets at the White House


The President:
Hello, everybody. Please have a seat. Welcome to the White House. I am going to be brief, because
on a night like tonight my job is to get out of the way and let
the professionals do their job. I do want to start by thanking
our extraordinary performers for taking time out of their busy
schedules to be with us. I also want to recognize the
President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities for
putting on this event and for everything they do
to support the arts. (applause) The power of poetry is
that everybody experiences it differently. There are no rules for
what makes a great poem. Understanding it isn’t just
about metaphor or meter. Instead, a great poem is
one that resonates with us, that challenges us and that
teaches us something about ourselves and the
world that we live in. As Rita Dove says, “If poetry
doesn’t affect you on some level that cannot be
explained in words, then the poem hasn’t
done its job.” Also known as, it don’t
mean a thing if — (laughter) — it ain’t got that swing. That’s a little ad-lib there. (laughter) For thousands of years, people
have been drawn to poetry in a very personal way
— including me. In the spirit of
full disclosure, I actually submitted a couple
of poems to my college literary magazine, and you will be
pleased to know that I will not be reading them tonight. (laughter) But as a nation built on
freedom of expression, poets have always played an
important role in telling our American story. It was after the bombing of Fort
McHenry during the War of 1812 that a young lawyer named
Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would become
our National Anthem. The Statue of Liberty has always
welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Soldiers going off to fight in
World War II were giving — given books of poetry for
comfort and inspiration. And whenever our nation has
faced a great tragedy — whether it was the loss of a
civil rights leader, the crew of a space shuttle, or
the thousands of Americans that were lost on a clear September
day — we have turned to poetry when we can’t find quite the
right words to express what we’re feeling. So tonight we continue that
tradition by hearing from some of our greatest — as well as
some of our newest — poets. Billy Collins, who
is here with us, calls poetry “the oldest
form of travel writing,” because it takes us to
places we can only imagine. So in that spirit, I’d
like everyone to sit back, or sit on the edge of your
seats, and enjoy the journey. Thank you very much. (applause) Announcer:
Ladies And Gentlemen, Rita Dove. (applause) Rita Dove:
Good evening. Thank you, Mr. President,
and Mrs. Obama, for bringing poetry into the
White House and letting us sing and soar for this evening. I would like to read two poems;
both of them are love poems of a sort. The first is a love
poem to librarians, because it was in the public
libraries of this country where I first really had the
world open up to me. This is my special branch
library in my home town of Ohio, Akron, Ohio, Maple Valley
Branch Library, 1967. For a 15-year-old,
there was plenty to do: browse the magazines, slip into
the Adult section to see What vast tristesse was born of
rush-hour traffic, décolletés, and the plague
of too much money. There was so much to discover. How to lay out a road. The language of flowers. And the place of women
in the Tribe of Moost. There were equations,
elegant as a French twist. Fractal geometries,
unwinding maple leaf. I could follow step-by-step the
slow disclosure of a pineapple jello mold. Or take the path of Harold’s
purple crayon through the bedroom window and on to a
lavender spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any
aisle and smell wisdom. Put a hand out to touch the
rough curve of bound leather, the harsh parchment of dreams. As for the improbable librarian
with her salt and paprika upsweep, her British
accent and sweater clip, mom of a kid I knew from school,
I’d go up to her desk and ask for help on bareback rodeo
or binary codes, phonics, Gestalt theory, lead poisoning
in the late Roman Empire. The play of light in Dutch
Renaissance painting. I would claim to be researching
pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot binding. But all I wanted to know was,
tell me what you’ve read that keeps that half smile afloat
above the collar of your impeccable blouse. So I read Gone With The
Wind because it was big. And haiku because
they were small. I studied history for
its rhapsody of dates, lingered over Cubist art for the
way it showed all sides of a guitar at once. All the time in the
world was there, and sometimes all the
world on a single page. As much as I could hold on
my plastic card’s imprint I took greedily. Six books, six volumes of bliss. The stuff we humans are made of,
words and sighs and silence, ink and whips, Brama and cosine,
corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels. I carried it home, past five
blocks of aluminum siding and the old garage where on its
boarded up doors someone had scrawled, “I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.” (laughter) Yes, I said, to no
one in particular. That’s what I’m going to do. (applause) And this is a more
traditional love poem. Heart to heart. It’s neither red nor sweet. It doesn’t melt or turn
over, break or harden, so it can’t feel pain,
yearning, regret. It doesn’t have
a tip to spin on. It isn’t even shapely. Just a thick clutch of
muscle, lopsided, mute. Still, I feel it inside its
cage sounding a dull tattoo. I want, I want. But I can’t open it. There’s no key. I can’t wear it on my sleeve or
tell you from the bottom of it how I feel. Here, it’s all yours now. But you’ll have to take me, too. Thank you. (applause) Announcer:
Ladies and gentlemen,
Kenneth Goldsmith. (applause) Kenneth Goldsmith:
Thank you. Thank you. You know, we’ve had a
terrific day of poetry here at the White House. And I want to thank the First
Lady for hosting a workshop this afternoon for, what was
it, 150 high school kids. And they got up and they read. It was so beautiful,
I wanted to cry. I mean, it was
really remarkable. So thank you for hosting that. It was really — (applause) — so meaningful. Okay. So tonight, I’ll be
reading three short excerpts from poems about
the Brooklyn Bridge. Now, the first excerpt I’m
going to read, of course, is by Walt Whitman. It’s called Crossing
Brooklyn Ferry. And it was written in 1856,
nearly 30 years before the bridge was built, right. And so in it, Whitman describes
crossing the East River by ferry in the exact spot where
the bridge stands today. And moving forward 75 years, the
second excerpt will be from the poem To Brooklyn Bridge, written
in 1930 by the modernist American poet Hart Crane. And here the bridge serves as a
spiritual metaphor comprised of a series of fleeting images
and emotions that refer to the bridge, but they never
describe the bridge, okay. And finally, I’ll be reading
two excerpts from my book — everything is very short —
Traffic, written in 2007, which is a transcription of
every traffic report given every ten minutes on the ones, over
the course of 24 hours on a New York City AM radio station. Now, here the Brooklyn Bridge,
the grand Brooklyn Bridge, is reduced to being a bit player
in a series of monuments that are evaluated not for their
spirituality or humanity or significance in any way. But merely on how fast or how
slow they get you to where you’re going. Okay. So the first is the Whitman
piece from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry written in 1856. “Flood tide below me, I
watch you face to face, clouds of the west, sun
there, half an hour high. I also see you face to face. Crowds of men and women
attired in the usual costumes. How curious you are to me. On the ferry boats, the hundreds
and hundreds that cross, returning home are more curious
to me than you suppose. And you that shall cross from
shore to shore, years hence, are more to me and more
in my meditations than you might suppose. What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores
or hundreds of years between us? Whatever it is, it avails not. Distance avails not. And place avails not.” The second piece is Hart Crane,
an excerpt from To Brooklyn Bridge from 1930. “Again, the traffic lights that
skim thy swift unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of
stars beating thy path, condense eternity, and we have
seen night lifted in thine arms. Oh, sleepless as the river
under thee, vaulting the sea, the prairies dreaming sod. Unto us lowly lists,
sometimes sweep, descend, and of the curve ship,
lend a myth to God.” And now finally, two
pieces from Traffic. They are two pieces that
are ten minutes apart. The first one is from
4:21 in the afternoon. (laughter) And we are still going to have
delays to get through, uh, a pretty bad rush hour. We’ve got major delays on, uh,
7th and 8th Avenues as you, uh, make your way through
the midtown area. 7th Avenue delays begin
right out of Central Park, all the way down
to Times Square. Broadway is not impacted,
obviously 9th and 10th Avenues seeing more traffic as
well, but not as bad as, uh, headed through the
Times Square area. Meanwhile, on the east
side, it’s a tortured test. (laughter) Because a lot of the, uh, side
streets are taking a beating, especially through
the 40s and 50s, that will impact traffic
at the 59th Street Bridge, which is jammed
coming into Manhattan. Right now you’ve also got
jam-ups on the Brooklyn Bridge, bumper to bumper to Brooklyn. But the lower
roadway is wide open. The Brooklyn Bridge is swamped. The FDR Drive’s not
looking good either. Bumper to bumper right
off the Manhattan Bridge. Meanwhile, the West Side Tunnel
delays begin in the 70s and they go all the way south down
to the Battery Tunnel. (applause) There’s one more,
and it gets worse. (laughter) Ten minutes later, at
4:31 in the afternoon, remember how bad
it was yesterday? It’s starting all over again. The east side delays
begin at the Triborough. It’s pretty much one long line
now all the way to the Battery, the west side delays at the
Battery booting back at the boat basin at 79th Street. We’ve got a ton of interior
traffic in midtown. 7th Avenue, Times
Square, that’s the delay. That’s where it’s all going. It’s coming out of Central Park. Broadway and 8th Avenue are
going to be impacted by that. On the east side, the side
streets are packed through the 40s and 50s, and that’s
why 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and Park Avenue right
now are an absolute mess. So trying to get around midtown
just like yesterday is not going to be easy at all. Across the east river, already a
ton of traffic each way on the Brooklyn Bridge. Now, the Manhattan bridge is
bumper to bumper coming into Manhattan, jam packed on the
upper roadway to Brooklyn. The lower roadway’s also a mess. 59th Street Bridge
is getting real bad. The Belt is jammed up
east off the Verrazano, some type of problem on
the way up to Coney Island. And right, now heavy
transit delays. Be sure to budget extra
travel time taking the LIRR out of Penn Station. Thank you. (applause) Announcer:
Ladies and gentlemen,
Alison Knowles. (applause) Alison Knowles:
I’m so honored to be here. The first piece I’m going to do
is called Shoes Of Your Choice. I first performed this in
New Jersey 48 years ago, and haven’t our
shoes served us well? (laughter) I would call this
an object poem. (laughter) These are my formal shoes. I’ve had them for many years. And it reminds me a lot of the
time when I was growing up and I then, at that time at
14 I had a size 11 foot. And in Scarsdale, New York,
there was no way to fit an 11 foot. So my parents would go in yearly
into New York City to something called Tall Size Shoes. (laughter) And they would
find me some shoes. I’m very delighted to say that
many tall women I meet now have no trouble to buy
a decent size shoe. The salesman, when I went
to buy these shoes, said, showing me a pair of very
ugly pumps, “Young woman, someone in your position
cannot be fussy.” (laughter) (applause) I’d like to read just a little
of a poem called the House Of Dust, which is one of the first
computer poems ever done, if not the first computer poem,
so I’m going to read you a little of this. This is programmed by a
wonderful composer in California, James Tenney. “A house of brick by a
river, using candles, inhabited by children
and old people. A house of tin in a hot
climate, using electricity, inhabited by little boys. A house of wood on an
island, using natural light, inhabited by women
wearing all colors. A house of discarded clothing in
dense woods, using electricity, inhabited by collectors
of all types. A house of brick in a
green mossy terrain, using natural light, inhabited
by all races of men wearing predominantly red clothing. A house of dust in a deserted
airport, using candles, inhabited by collectors
of all types. A house of weeds on an
island, using electricity, inhabited by
friends and enemies. A house of discarded clothing
in a deserted airport, using all available lighting,
inhabited by people who eat a great deal. A house of roots in a
green mossy terrain, using electricity,
inhabited by lovers.” (rattling sound) This is a bean turner. It’s made of flax
and azuki beans. It’s the invention I
have of sound poetry. Thank you. (applause) Announcer:
Ladies and gentlemen, Jill Scott. (applause) Jill Scott:
I just had to make sure
I could get up the steps. I don’t normally have a
computer, but I do today. So let’s see how this works. I’m excited. Thank you so much
for having me here. I’m really geeked. (laughter) Let’s see. I’ve been concerned over the
years wondering why so many people had HIV, with all the
information that’s given and the constant billboards and you
see what happens, you know, unprotected sex equals danger. So, in me trying to
figure out how it happens, I wrote a poem some years ago. It’s called One Second
Of Warped Security, so that I could understand it,
and it goes like this: I — I — I — I — I — I was chilling
with him on a Sunday, it was a good day, all
day making love day. I — I — I — I — I didn’t
think that I — I could feel so comfortable and secure,
but I — I — I — I did. And H — I — I — I
— v came to visit. (taking a breath) I don’t know what
this is called yet. But it goes like this: Oh,
children, please write. Paste your thoughts on
our thoughts for a while. Because folks get mazed in the
selling and buying of things and one fine day they find they’ve
forgotten how to cry and marked absent when it’s time to smile. They missed the
whole damn point, that love is meant to
be excessively praised, and hurts are to be
forgiven, understood, so that moving on can be a
forward movement and the end result is just … good. Write, children, write. Let the words be purged from
your souls high and your guttural deep. Be not afraid because
humanity needs reminding. Real living is in the now nows. And there is much to be touched,
and much more to be seen. Investigate the
alls of everything. Write, baby. ‘Cause I was born a
day or two after you, and the prescription
in my glasses changed a thousand times. I need your fresh, your sublime
fascination, I need your eyes. Write for me, love, please. Not a performance piece. Actors act, but you are
a poet, you write poetry. The dancing of words. The fly in the soup. The pain in the piece. You explored the life. The things on the things. Elders fingers. Ugly ways. Bugs on wings. The reasons the dancers dance. The reasons the singers sing. Write, children, write! Write angry. Show define. Be outraged. Mark me with a red pen
when I do not protect you. When I give up. When I give in. When fear is holding
my arms back. When ego was controlling,
humiliating me. Make me go inside myself
to straighten up, wash, and do some ironing. Write, children. Be my superhero poet. Wear your cape, inside the
diamond on your chest, a large capital P. Languish in the power of words. Tell the stories. Touch, reach, fly over the
lies and confusion of the times. Save me. Write, children, write. Please. (applause) Thank you. I’m cheating. You don’t get an opportunity to
be at the White House very often and say a poem, so I’m
going to read another one, if that’s all right. I’m sure the Secret Service will
come yank me up and tell me to get out of here if
I was supposed to. This poem is called Womanifesto. Clearly I am not some lump of
flesh squeezed into tight jeans. I am active brain and
lip smacking peach deep. Sometimes too aggressive in
its honesty, and heart sweet. That loves wholly and completely
whomever it may choose. I am not going to
lie and pacify. I am arms to hold. I am lips to speak. I am a G. Strong legs that stroll off the
33 bus or out of a money green fantom comfortably. Knees that bend to pray. Clean from Ajax washings. Hair that is thick and soft. Thighs that betweaks an
all amazing grand prize. I am eyes that sing,
smile that brightens, touch that rings and
supplies euphoric release. I am a grandame queen beast. I am warm. I am peace. From the roads of
Botswana to 23rd Street, from the inside third eye
ever watching this wicked, wicked system of
things I do see. I am friend to pen. Lover of strong women. A diamond to men. I am curious and
interested like children. I welcome the wise to teach. Appreciator of my culture. Thick not from just
bone dense and eat. There is a rhythm in my ways
and a practice in my seek. And yes, I do crave the rhythm
of my space with a man that rejoices in God’s grace. With faith, I do hear to listen. Two hands that fist when force
pushes to shove and your ego won’t submit. And I am gifted. I am all of this. And indeed the shiznit. (laughter) Clearly I am not just an ass. Thank you. (applause) Announcer:
Ladies and gentlemen,
Moira Bass and Youssef Biaz. (applause) Moira Bass:
Hi. I’m Moira, and this is
one of my poems called Shana. Well, we all know
then, don’t we? We’re all ready for the worst. Shana, don’t you give in I won’t
lie to you girl I ain’t gonna tell no stories Cuz there sure
as heck is always gonna be another heartbreak But who said
there ain’t gonna be someone who will just keep on mendin’? You just keep those music notes
And stars floating around your head And ignore them
moans and groans. Shana, don’t you give in. None of our lives is filled with
fluffy bunnies and kept promises And above all – true love
Don’t you go pretendin’ child, but Shana, don’t you give in. Your prince will come But don’t
you go searching too early Or it’ll jinx your luck
He’s awaiting somewhere Just hold your dang horses! Just ’cause one left you, pshaw. I’ll be bettin’ that there’s
gonna be twenty seizing the moment when they find out. So dry them tears, stupid girl
No one needs the waters to rise Shana, don’t you give in. You ain’t one of
them Teeter-totter, blond-headed Heavens-to-Betsy
simpleminded Airheaded chicks who’s always checking their hair
in the mirror What do they care of future? No, you got promise, child. Shana, don’t you give in. That’s why they
like you, you know? Now get your sensible head Out
of the low-hanging clouds — Move on and come out
of this Mourning. No one wants a girl Who cries
during math class caring more about her problems than
the ones in the book. I love you girl. Shana, don’t you give in. (applause) Youssef Biaz:
Good evening. My name is Youssef Biaz,
and for the past two years, I’ve been involved in the
national poetry recitation contest called Poetry Out Loud
sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts
and the Poetry Foundation. And tonight I’ll be reciting
a poem written by Sharon Olds called Mrs. Krikorian. And it’s Sharon Olds’ way of
honoring a wonderful teacher she must have had in 6th grade and
it seems that she wasn’t very well behaved in 6th grade. And to be honest, neither was I. And the poem really spoke to me,
and it was the first poem that peaked my interest
and participating in the competition. So here it is. Mrs. Krikorian, by Sharon Olds. “She saved me. When I arrived in 6th
grade a known criminal, the new teacher asked me to stay
after school the first day. She said, I’ve heard about you. She was a tall woman with a deep
crevice between her breasts and a large, calm nose. She said this is a
special library pass. As soon as you finish your
hour’s work — that hour’s work that took ten minutes and then
the devil glanced into the room and found me empty, a house
standing open — you can go to the library. Every hour I’d zip through the
work in a dash and slip out of my seat as if out of God’s side
and sail down to the library, solo through the
empty powerful halls, flash my pass and stroll over to
the dictionary to look up the most interesting
word I knew, spank, dipping two fingers into the jar
of library paste to suck that tart mucilage as I came to the
page with the cocker spaniel’s silks curling up like the
fine steam of the body. After spank, and breast, I’d
move on to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller safe in their
goodness till the bell. Thanks to Mrs. Krikorian,
amiable giantess with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-cane As
you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm will come
up out of the bowel to get it. And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and Amelia Earhart,
saved by Mrs. Krikorian. And who had saved
Mrs. Krikorian? When the Turks came
across Armenia, who slid her into
the belly of a quilt, who locked her in a chest,
who mailed her to America? And that one, who saved her,
and that one who saved her, to save the one who
saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was standing there
on the sill of 6th grade, a wide-hipped angel, smokey
hair standing up weightless all around her head? I end up owing my soul to so
many, to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove deep into a crack in
a wall, shoved under a bed. I would wake up, in the
morning, under my bed, not knowing how I had got
there, and lie in the dusk, the dustballs beside my
face round and ashen, shining slightly with the eerie
comfort of what is neither good nor evil.” Thank you very much. I’m very honored to
be here. Thank you. (applause) Announcer:
Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Collins. (applause) Billy Collins:
Good evening. What a thrill and a
honor it is to be here. And how grateful we are to the
President and Mrs. Obama for hosting this, for drawing
attention to poetry in America. I’m only sorry that so many of
my fellow poets could not be here to join us tonight. Well, not really. (laughter) It’s important that I’m here. (laughter) One of my poet friends phoned me
earlier in the week and said, you know, you’re going to make
so many poets jealous going to the White House,
and I said, well, isn’t that the whole
point of writing? I mean — (laughter) And then he reminded me that the
point of writing was to merry truth and beauty,
so hats off to him. But he’s not here either, so. (laughter and applause) Well, I was told originally that
I could read only one poem, but I pulled former
laureate privilege, and I’ve extended
it to two poems, so. It’s customary toward the end of
poetry readings to give what is called the two-poem warning, but
I’m going to start by giving you the two-poem warning. So you’ve been warned. The first poem is
called forgetfulness, and it’s a meditation
on forgetting, and it begins with something
called literary amnesia that is forgetting books you’ve read. Forgetfulness. The name of the author is the
first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot the
heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly
becomes one you have never read never even heard of. It is as if, one by one, the
memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the
southern hemisphere of the brain to a little
fishing village where there are no phones. Long ago you kissed the names of
the nine Muses goodbye and you watched the quadratic equation
pack its bag and even now as you memorize the order of the
planet something else is slipping away, a state flower
perhaps the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay. Whatever it is you are
struggling to remember it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen. It has floated away down a dark
mythological river whose name begins with an L as far as you
can recall well on your own way to oblivion where you will join
those who have forgotten even how to swim and how
to ride a bicycle. No wonder you rise in the middle
of the night to look up the date of a famous battle
in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window
seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you
used to know by heart. (applause) And this is a poem about
something children do in the summertime at camp, and
it’s called The Lanyard. The other day as I was
ricocheting slowly off the pale blue walls of this room bouncing
from typewriter to piano from bookshelf to an envelope
lying on the floor. I found myself in the L section
of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French
novelist could send one more suddenly into the past a past
where I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a
lanyard, a gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone
use a lanyard or wear one, if that’s what you did with them
but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy red and white
lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk
from her breasts and I gave her a lanyard. (laughter) She nursed me in many a
sickroom lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips set cold
face-cloths on my forehead then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I, in turn, presented
her with a lanyard. (laughter) Here are thousands
of meals, she said, and here is clothing
and a good education. And here is your
lanyard, I replied — (laughter) — which I made with a
little help from a counselor. (laughter) Here is a breathing body and
a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear
eyes to read the world, she whispered. And here, I said, is the
lanyard I made at camp. And here, I wish to say to
her now is a smaller gift, not the archaic truth that you
can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that
when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hands, I was as
sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even. (laughter and applause) Thank you. (applause) President Obama:
Well, what is a
spectacular evening. I want to make sure that all of
you have a chance to give one more big round of
applause to Jill Scott. (applause) Steve Martin and the
Steep Canyon Rangers. (applause) Aimee Mann. (applause) Alison Knowles. (applause) Kenny Goldsmith. (applause) Rita Dove. (applause) Common. (applause) Billy Collins. (applause) Youssef Biaz. (applause) Moira Bass. (applause) Give them all a big
round of applause. That’s the power of poetry. (applause)

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