Inaugural poet: people’s choice winners

The votes are in, and we have a clear winner. “It’s late but everything comes next” garnered 16 of the 165 votes cast, for 9.7 percent of the total. The author is Naomi Shihab Nye, and the line comes from her poem “Jerusalem,” in Red Suitcase. As the following video also demonstrates, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems are full of just the sort of advice an incoming president might find useful.

A president-elect who’s also an international celebrity might benefit from the reality-check provided by Nye’s poem “Famous,” which begins:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

Read the whole poem here. Also worth checking out is an interview with Nye at Pif magazine, conducted by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi fame. And in another, more recent interview at Foreign Policy in Focus, the Palestinian-American poet had some specific advice for the incoming president regarding Israel/Palestine:

Melissa Tuckey: You wrote in an email that Barack Obama needs to evolve in his positions on Israel/Palestine. What course of action would you recommend for the future president (be he Obama or McCain)?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Balance. Respect for all human beings. All stories. All pain. Recognition of what the Palestinian people have been through in the last 60-plus years. Honest recognition that the violence has hardly been a one-way street.

Melissa Tuckey: Do you believe peace is possible? What are your hopes for Israel and for Palestine? Do you support one state in Israel/ Palestine or two?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Yes, I believe peace is possible. As my father kept saying toward the end of his life, people will have to become exhausted enough with fighting to embrace peace. From what I hear, many, on both “sides” have been exhausted enough to try something better for quite a long time. My hopes are for a one-state cooperative solution (because the territory is simply so small) in which Palestinian and Israeli citizens may share their strengths and resources in mutual respect. I don’t see, at this point, how a two-state solution could work as well. The wall must go down. Don’t bring it to Texas, either, we have enough problems with our own stupid wall!

“Jerusalem” is too long to quote in its entirety, but it ends:

There’s a place in my brain
Where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.


Six other quotes garnered 12 or more votes each.

Minor-party candidates

  • “Take
    your time. Take mine
    too. Get into some trouble
    I’ll have to account for.” (8 votes)
    Tess Gallagher, “Instructions to the Double” (Instructions to the Double)
  • “Still
    there is a population
    that likes mistakes and
    indecision, guarding
    atavisms and anatomical
    sports, the hips of snakes,
    the wings of the horse.” (8 votes)
    Kay Ryan, “Les Natures Profondement Bonnes Sont Toujours Indecises” (Flamingo Watching)
  • “Trapped in one idea, you can’t have your feelings,
    feelings are always about more than one thing.” (8 votes)
    Adrienne Rich, from “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” #13 (Your Native Land, Your Life)
  • “Salmon lie at rest in the riffles,
    their sea-silver changing,
    as they ascend to the
    cold, still water of stars.” (7 votes)
    John Haines, “Doors that Open” (Where the Twilight Never Ends)
  • [Removed at author’s request] (7 votes)
    Bill Knott, “Minor Poem” (found online)
  • “we must learn to suckle life not
    bombs and rhetoric
    rising up in redwhiteandblue patriotism” (7 votes)
    Sonia Sanchez, “Reflections After the June 12th March for Disarmament” (homegirls and handgrenades)
  • “If you’re gonna bet on cards, Ben says,
    You might as well play harmonica.” (6 votes)
    Tom Montag, untitled (The Big Book of Ben Zen)
  • “There is nothing one man will not do to another.” (5 votes)
    Carolyn Forché, “The Visitor” (The Country Between Us)
  • “The thing you have to remember
    about hot water cornbread
    is to wait for the burning
    so you know when to flip it, and then again
    so you know when it’s crusty and done.” (4 votes)
    Patricia Smith, “When the Burning Begins” (Teahouse of the Almighty)
  • “America needs a beating.” (3 votes)
    Gary Soto, “Our Days” (Who Will Know Us?)
  • “Cigarettes are the only way
    to make bleakness nutritional, or at least useful,
    something to do while feeling terrified.” (3 votes)
    B. H. Fairchild, “Cigarettes” (The Art of the Lathe)
  • “Great are the Hittites.” (3 votes)
    Charles Simic, “Concerning My Neighbors, the Hittites” (Dismantling the Silence)
  • “If you laid out all the limbs from the Civil War hospital
    in Washington they would encircle the White House seven times.” (3 votes)
    Jim Harrison, from “Ghazals,” XXXIX (The Shape of the Journey)

There were also three write-in candidates which garnered one vote apiece, though none appear to be from only one was from a living American poet.

Thanks to everyone for voting, and don’t forget to support poets by buying their works.

12 Replies to “Inaugural poet: people’s choice winners”

  1. Naomi’s work knocks my socks off. Always has.

    Wow, that old interview is still around! I had to dig a bit on my own website to figure out when I interviewed her — turns out it was 1999. I still love reading what she has to say, though rereading that piece now, I’m exasperated with my own interviewing style. The pieces I’m doing now for Zeek are so much better. :-)

  2. Wow. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant from beginning to end (and not just because I voted for her). Thank you so much for doing this and introducing me to a number of poets I’d never heard of.

    Would you say who your choice is?

  3. Rachel – I was wondering when that hailed from. I remembered reading it quite a while ago.

    Lady P – Glad you found this useful, because it did entail a bit more work than I usually put into blog posts.

    My personal favorite candidate is Irene McKinney – thanks for asking. Not only is she a terrific poet who represents a region that Obama failed to win over, but she has the kind of deep rootedness and place-centric wisdom that we all need to learn from. (Obama himself has spoken somewhat wistfully about this.) Do watch the 3-part interview on YouTube if you get a chance.

  4. i’m also pleased irene mckinney placed so high on the list. she was one of my professors at the teeny tiny college i attended in west virginia. i didn’t consider myself a poet back then (i was a journalist and boy chaser) and i wrote lots of crap in her creative writing class.

    about the only thing i knew about poetry at that time was that she had amazing talent. i’d like to have the chance to go back and study with her now!

  5. i’m back! just spent the last half-hour watching the 3-part interview with irene mckinney (from your link to you-tube). thank you for it.

    it reminded me what a gift it was to see her, with her red hair and big glasses, zipping around the English annex, which was full of her male colleagues in their suits. i adored those professors, as well, and one is a poet whom i still read, but seeing her among them made a great impression on me about how to be who you are.

    i owe this bright part of a dreary east coast november afternoon to you. :)

  6. if you had looked at where you stole my poem from,

    you’d see it was a plagiarist site . . . please

    do not reprint my poetry without my permission,

    otherwise you’re a thief——

  7. Carolee – Really? Wow! Yeah, I’ve often thought of my own college education that I was a bit too immature to take full advantage of it. Was it Twain who said that “youth is wasted on the young”?

    deb- Glad you liked.

    Hi Bill – I was hoping that the mention of your name would make you appear and explain what you’d done with that great online archive of your poetry that I read last year. I spent quite a bit of time looking for it the other day. I do believe my use would be permitted within the Fair Use clause of U.S. copyright law, but since you object, I’ve now removed it. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Love the poems, so many poets to learn more about. One of the write in poems was from me. It is from a living American Poet, David Lee. That particular quote was from his Poem “Bryant Williamson” but only because that is where I opened the book. It is really more suited to your outgoing executive crew. The opening stanza is

    “Onriest man in town I guess
    was old Bryant Williamson the 1st
    that was his boys’s and
    his boy’s name too the 2nd and 3d
    in a row with the same name
    he’s rich
    made his seed money in the oil
    off his ranch”

    Lee is one of my all time favourite poets. He writes most eloquently about pigs.

  9. Oh, hi Clare – thanks for clarifying that. PollDaddy cut off the quote after about 20 characters, so it was a little hard to figure out. But if Bush had ever had an inaugural poet, Lee sure sounds like he would’ve been a good pick! I don’t have any of his books, but I’ll keep an eye out for his stuff. Thanks.

  10. Thanks for doing this, Dave. It was a lot of fun. And the quotes were intriguing. Well chosen!

    Coincidentally, I had mentioned Nye in one of my comments, calling her an amazing voice for unity (which she is):

    I don’t think Obama could choose better.

    And I will be sure to look out McKinney. WVa has a lot of really good writers. As does Kentucky, where I come from, another benighted place. But I think we can’t be all that benighted if we have poets like McKinney & Wendell Berry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.