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Poetic Naiveté

At a recent MLA panel, one academic criticized how, he argues, poets have abandoned their usual “skepticism” about political speech when it comes to President Barack Obama’s “eloquence.”

For example, Professor David Caplan [1]from Ohio Wesleyan University cited Carribean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Wascott’ January 2009 statement to Weekend America, in which Wascott explains how he felt after learning President Obama was carrying around a collection of his poems. “Walcott says he was flattered, ‘But for me, what that means is it’s nothing to do with me so much as a fact if you have a president who reads poetry, there’s hope because poetry tries to tell the truth,’” reported [2] Larissa Anderson for Weekend America.

Responding to this anecdote, Prof. Caplan asked “Now, I assume many of you have spent a lot of time in these departments. Do you see any evidence that people who read a lot of poetry are more likely to tell the truth?”

His opinion on the matter was clear. “And I don’t think any, really, poet or critic would see this as a necessary connection…and with Obama they [poets] make these claims, they totally set aside the skepticism about language. It’s a new day, we’re working on—all language is mirroring the present, we’re engaged in this grand project.”

Prof. Caplan also lectured on 2Pac’s race-baiting lyrics [3] about Black Panther Party member Huey Newton and Young Jeezy’s “My President is Black [4]” (profanity in both). (He described [5] hip hop artists’ lyrics as seeming “effortless” and based on speed rather than perfection).

2Pac’s mother and father were members of the Black Panther Party, according to RollingStone [6]; “other close family members shared this commitment” to the Party, said Caplan.

Huey Newton [7], co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was iconic among some college youth in the 1960s, argue David Horowitz and Peter Collier in Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties. “On the night of October 27, Huey Newton, founder and minister of defense of the Black Panther Party, left a gathering celebrating the end of his probation for a knifing incident three years earlier and, just before dawn, was stopped by Oakland policeman John Frey,” they write, continuing,

“Ten minutes later, Frey was dead, with five bullet wounds, two of them entering his back from a distance of twelve inches. Newton had been wounded, as had a back-up officer called to Frey’s aid. Two eyewitnesses, the back-up officer and a black bus driver who had happened on the scene, identified Newton as the killer. The Panther leader was charged with murder.

The defense argument was that Officer Frey and Newton had both been shot in the chaos of the moment by the officer who arrived as back-up. But the implications of the courtroom rhetoric, reflecting the escalating radical vision of the time, implied that even if Newton had done the shooting, the act was justified…” (emphasis in original).

“Within months, Newton had become a cult figure, whose poster in black beret and leather jacket siting on an African rattan throne, with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other, began decorating college dorms all over America,” they write.

View the poster here [8].

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia [9].