“Made in Hawaii,
Jakarta. African cool.
And then came Michelle.
A garden kept them grounded.
Those two girls. Kale. Kohlrabi.” — Elizabeth Alexander and Paul Muldoon
More than 200 poets are writing a “Renga for Obama,” a celebratory ode to the 44th president, which is published in the Harvard Review. The “Renga for Obama,” which is curated and edited by poet Major Jackson, is crafted in a traditional Japanese form of poetry, in which poets working in pairs compose a “tan-renga” of two stanzas of poetry.
The first stanza is modeled after traditional haiku with three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables. The first stanza is followed by “a response to the haiku” with two lines, which are called waki and have seven syllables in each line. The poets collaborate to create the tan-renga, which are then submitted to Jackson.
Jackson adds a new tan-renga to the poem each day for the first 100 days, creating a dynamic chain of poetry. The first lines of the “Renga for Obama” were published Jan. 21 in the Review.
“The poem is intended in the spirit of celebration,” said Jackson, 48, a professor of English at University of Vermont and poetry editor of the Review.
Jackson’s idea for the “Renga for Obama” was sparked a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Jackson was at his desk in his home office, writing and reading about the upcoming inauguration.
“It dawned on me that Barack Obama would not be in the public life of Americans as he had been for eight years,” Jackson said in an interview. “His public life as a servant was coming to a close. I remember when [George W.] Bush’s tenure as president was coming to a close; I remember the scene on the lawn when the Obamas were escorting them to the helicopter and waving goodbye. It struck me as a poignant moment — the poignant end of his life as a public servant and the historic nature of his presidency. Out of that,grew the project. His life felt epic to me.”
Jackson called his wife, poet Didi Jackson, into the study and explained his idea.
“She said go for it,” Jackson recalled. “We are always looking for an occasion when poetry has a great relevance to our lives. This seemed like another means to assert the relevance of poetry in our lifetime.”
That night, Jackson wrote an email outlining the project. But he did not hit the send button.
“The next morning, my wife asked, ‘Did you send the e-mail?’ I said no. She said why not. I said, ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ She said, ‘We need this right now.’ I think she was alluding to the fact that given the level of discourse, how polarized we had become as a nation, that we could use words from poets that honored us as a nation through the lens of celebrating this historic presidency.”
He sent the email.
Jackson began pairing and assigning 270 poets. Christina Thompson, editor of the Review, publishes the renga each day. Jackson insisted the poem not be a reaction to Trump’s presidency but a celebration of Obama.
“As we deepen into the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, poets cannot help but respond to a headline,” Jackson said.
”Art should not be in the service of any political view,” Jackson said. “Art takes in the full range of human experience and puts it through the lens and hopefully we see an aspect fresh and new.”
Poets, Jackson said, interrogate language more closely than politicians.
“For politicians, words are tools,” Jackson said. “For poets, words are jewels. They are the material of our art. It becomes the very material of which we create art.”
The response to the “Renga for Obama,” Jackson said, has been huge. They have not heard directly from Obama, Jackson said, “but the word on the street is that he has read it. He is a very literary-minded political leader.”
Here are some selections from the “Renga for Obama”:
“Healing in winter
Lava-flower tea — its wood
Endures like laurel.
Island-born, cool lava-bloom.
You. Presiding, laurel-crowned.” — Robert Pinsky and Carol Muske-Dukes
lifts from winter lawns — yet your
verdant hope keeps on
the snow conceals a future
hatch of shadow dragonflies” — Kimiko Hahn and Chase Twichell
“The moon hidden there
In the folds of day, the grey
What blind bold walking
Sane voice burnt in black wax won’t swerve
All I hope for now is reverb.” — Dorothea Lasky and Michael Dickman
“What big ears you have,
Mr. President! and heart
Big as big can be,
Big as the Pyramid & Sphinx
In the drifting sands of Time” — Ron Padgett and Ed Sanders
“We can. We will. Yes.
From marrow to groove. Yes. We
dare burden to break —
to carry our massive us.
Marching poets. Each. Beat. Leaps” — Edwin Torres and Bob Holman