Poets don't typically write to order.
You can't just call them up and ask them for a poem. Not even for an inauguration.
But The Associated Press did ask. And they did write.
The inauguration of a new president just seems to be a fitting time for poetry, and so 10 American poets accepted the AP's invitation to come up with a little something to mark Barack Obama's ascension to the presidency.
The poems came from an eclectic assortment of American wordsmiths, ranging from a former poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner to a self-described "cowboy poet."
Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, submitted "launch," containing shimmery imagery of a boat set afloat under "the sun's golden rafters."
In "Making the News," Californian Gary Soto wrote about setting a match to the newspaper and letting "the bad years go up in a question mark of smoke."
Novelist and poet Julia Alvarez, who spent her first 10 years in the Dominican Republic, wrote a rebuttal to the poem that Robert Frost had recited at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.
Alvarez remembers watching Kennedy's inauguration and being fascinated with the "old, cranky, white-haired man" who recited "The Gift Outright." Later, she studied the poem and came to see it as overlooking huge swaths of the U.S. population.
Frost's poem focused on the American colonists from England and stated that "The land was ours before we were the land's." Alvarez countered that "The land was never ours, nor we the land's: no, not in Selma, with the hose turned on, nor in the valley picking the alien vines. Nor was it ours in Watts, Montgomery _ no matter what the frosty poet said."
Themes of change and hope were everywhere in the poems.
In "The Procession," Yusef Komunyakaa wrote that "Each question uncurls a little whip in the air. Can we change tomorrow?"
In "The World Has Changed," Alice Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Color Purple," exhorted readers to "wake up & smell the possibility."
Almost as poetic as some of the poems that arrived were the comments of poets who either said they'd give it a try, or who wouldn't think of it.
Nathaniel Mackey explained that writing an inaugural ode would be a challenge because "I tend to write in a rather dark vein." Nothing came of his pledge to try.
Sandra Cisneros wouldn't make any promises, writing that "I just go to sleep, and it's just born or it's not." It wasn't.
Charles Simic, another former poet laureate, said "it's impossible to say yes or no. ... I can't write to order. ... When do you need it by?"
His good intentions didn't bear fruit.
New Yorker Sharon Olds deemed her efforts unworthy.
"It's as I suspected," she e-mailed. "I'm not able to come up with anything near good enough, tho I used a lot of paper!"
Andrei Codrescu, who was born in Romania and became a U.S. citizen in 1981, wasn't one even to venture a try.
"I voted for Obama, but I grew up under Ceausescu," Codrescu wrote of the former Romanian dictator. "The idea of writing poems for people in power gives me the creeps."
There was some modesty among those who did venture to write something.
Soto _ winner of too many poetry prizes to list _ sent his in with the instructions: "feel free to edit."
Alvarez sent hers along with the caveat that "it's in the nature of occasion poems to be somewhat disposable."
The AP set no ground rules for the poems. But poet David Lehman, editor of the Best American Poetry series, decided his should meet the same guidelines as those established for an inaugural ode contest sponsored by the poetry series that he edits. Writers were required to use at least three of six designated words (integrity, faith, change, hope, power and honor.) Lehman managed to work five into a poem that offered Obama the wish that "May God, in this winter hour, shine on your countenance and teach you to balance the heart's poetry and the mind's power."
Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, happened to be in West Africa filming a documentary on oral storytellers when the request for a poem arrived. He drew inspiration from his surroundings to write "Africa goes for Obama!"
Cowboy poet Ted Newman penned a plea to Obama to "be the president our country needs."
Amiri Baraka, former poet laureate of New Jersey, took a short cut and sent in something he'd written about Obama last February: "Imagine Obama Talking To A Fool."
One of the poets who didn't respond to the AP's invitation was poet Elizabeth Alexander. It turns out she'll be reciting an original poem at the inauguration.
Apparently, Obama's invitation took priority over the AP's.
Poets don't typically write to order.