Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas and Obama

This morning I woke up with something still stuck in my head from two weeks ago. On the December 13 show of A Prairie Home Companion, Renee Fleming and Yo Yo Ma performed an adapted version of "In the Bleak Midwinter." It's one of my favorite Christmas carols, though (and maybe because) it's so moody. The experience was enhanced by being in my car, in the bitter cold, on my way to Saint John's University for the mundane task of checking out a video from the library. But it meant I was driving onto that lovely campus and past the dramatic bell banner as the song was playing. It was yet another instance of the great myth-making going on around Barack Obama and his family, but it was also very moving. Here's a transcript of the two adapted verses:

In the bleak midwinter
at the Christmas feast,
a family leaves Chicago
and travels to the East,
for a public mansion
in Washington, D.C.
in a time of trouble
and festivity.

All across the nation
sea to shining sea,
people watch the passage
of this family.
And the loving wishes
go out to them there,
all the nation beathes
a silent, hopeful prayer.

I have mixed feelings about all this mythmaking. I think it puts too much pressure on this one man and his decisions. I fear we're hoping he'll save us-- by which I think people mean, make things go back to how they used to be, restore prosperity. Last night the prioress, Nancy Bauer, gave a homily on all the messianic language in the headlines lately surrounding the economic crisis, and it does raise false hopes. As she pointed out, the messiah that showed up was not "the stimulus package" the Jews expected to free them from the Romans. If we want saving, we should look elsewhere.

At the same time, I am proud of my country and this choice, and I am hopeful that we can make it through this transition and hopefully see some real change, and some real character shown by our people, all of us together.

I read this morning that Elizabeth Alexander is writing a poem for the inauguration. I knew Elizabeth when she taught at the University of Chicago, and struggled because the hardcore academics in that English department didn't respect creative writers. I also heard that from the editors of the Chicago Review at the time. Elizabeth is a wonderful poet, and deeply humble and wickedly smart. The New York Times story kind of oddly fished around as to why she would be chosen. They suggested it might be her friendship with the Obamas, or something else. It bugged me that she still has to defend her talent. I guess the feeling is she's too "osbscure" to join the ranks of Robert Frost (for Kennedy), and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams ([for Clinton]. Williams is also obscure, but was a "senior statesman" of poetry.) It is interesting to note that our poet laureates aren't ever asked to do this task. In England, that's what poet laureates are for.

I think it's a perfect choice. Elizabeth comes from where the Obamas come from. She will understand her task completely, and be sensitive to it poetically and in terms of it being a public address. She's an accomplished, wonderful poet. And she's promised to be brief (which is more than you can say for Maya Angelou!).

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