Several months ago, before the presidential election, San Francisco poet and author Dean Rader found himself engaged in a philosophical debate with some of his fellow poets: If Donald Trump won the presidency, and if he asked one of them to compose a poem to be read at the inauguration, would they agree?
On the one hand, none of them had voted for Trump. Rader didn’t know many politically conservative poets in general, and his friends found Trump’s election in particular to be “terrifying” and offensive. At the same time, poetry was rarely given a national platform in the United States. So if a poet was presented with the opportunity to share her or his art form with the entire listening country, perhaps there would be an artistic responsibility to participate — a sense of duty.
Many of Rader’s friends responded with an unequivocal no; they wouldn’t perform. Others wrestled with the question: “How could I work for a man and administration without becoming one of the ‘fawning half-men?’ ” responded Dana Levin, a lauded Santa Fe poet, in an email to Rader that he later published online. “Would I politely decline such an invite, or use it as a vehicle of public protest, or slink into the wilderness without answer, in hopes I can wait out the regime?”
The hypothetical question from August has now become a literal one for artists. Trump has been elected. His inaugural committee is planning an inauguration — an event that, in President Obama’s terms, included performers ranging from Kelly Clarkson to Yo-Yo Ma. Now, less than a month before that inauguration, Trump’s program is filled with question marks. Currently, just two performers have been publicly confirmed: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which was announced Thursday, and Jackie Evancho, a 16-year-old classically trained singer who rose to national fame on “America’s Got Talent.” Beyond that there has been silence from official channels on which artists will take part in the Jan. 20 festivities, leading many to speculate that the planning committee is struggling to secure A-list names. A recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch included a dig at the president’s celebrity dearth: a campaign staffer tells Alec Baldwin’s Trump that she’s compiled a list of artists who are willing to perform on Jan. 20. She then hands him a minuscule Post-it.
Many artists have been contacted. Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci said that Elton John would be performing; John’s publicist quickly denied that. “I’m not a Republican in a million years,” John had told the Guardian newspaper, months earlier, when asked about Trump using his music to campaign. “Why not ask Ted f------ Nugent? Or one of those f------ country stars. They’d do it for you.”
Country star Garth Brooks implied he might consider it — “It’s always about serving, it’s what you do,” he told TMZ when he was in the District this month for the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony — but his publicist politely said he had “not been able to commit yet.”
Andrea Bocelli, a best-selling Italian tenor, had offered to perform, according to a television interview given by Thomas Barrack, the chair of Trump’s transition team. Barrack said the singer was told it wasn’t necessary. And meanwhile, some of Bocelli’s 226,000 Twitter followers turned on him, launching a #BoycottBocelli movement. “I love you Andrea,” wrote one such fan. “But I will never listen to you again if you sing for Trump.”
The tweet lays out the tension at hand. Would Bocelli be singing “for Trump?” Or would he be singing for the country? And if there’s a difference, does it matter?
The history of performers at inaugurations is not as far-reaching as one might suspect. The concept of an inaugural poet, for example, wasn’t introduced until John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Robert Frost was an admirer of Kennedy, and it was thought that the presence of the stately octogenarian poet would lend gravitas to the inauguration of the baby-faced senator.
“If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president,” Frost wrote in a telegram to Kennedy, “I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry, now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen.”
Subsequently, poets made sporadic appearances at inaugurations — after Robert Frost, the next was Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s ceremony — while opera stars or pop singers became staples.
On a few occasions, the same performer has performed at multiple inaugurations: The contralto Marian Anderson performed at both the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, and Kennedy, a Democrat. Soprano Jessye Norman sang “Simple Gifts” at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, followed 12 years later by “America the Beautiful” at Bill Clinton’s. “It’s a uniquely American event,” Norman said on the subject of presidential inaugurations in 1997. “There’s a lot of good to be said for it.”
One could argue that being an artist has become a more political act than it was in 1997. In this election, Hollywood and Broadway, with rare exception, heaved their public and full-throated support behind Hillary Clinton. Republican politicians generally are not known for bringing in high- wattage star power: At the Republican National Convention in July, Trump promised “showbiz,” and then delivered only Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr.
But even while the country becomes more divided, there is still a historic sense that the arts should unite us — that the transformative power of words and music should transcend politics and be able to speak to something deeper and more universal in every human soul.
The question of whether an artist should agree to perform is not as simple as asking whether one agrees with the administration. It’s a matter of asking, Richard Blanco says, “What role does the poem or the art serve?”
Blanco, a Cuban American poet, was asked to compose and write a poem for Obama’s second inauguration — a work called “One Today” that was an ode to the country’s diversity and unity. “One of the important things that I learned in the whole process of writing the poem and delivering the poem was that America is still very much a work in progress,” Blanco said. “It’s pretty young for a country. Sometimes we take five steps forward and three steps back. And I see the rhetoric being proposed by the Trump narrative as a step back. It’s not inclusive. So there’s a lot of responsibility for all of us to add to that narrative — a sentence or a paragraph — what we think was right.”
Perhaps an artist would decide that her best sentence would be the one she wrote declining to participate in an inauguration she didn’t support. Perhaps she would always worry she was being used as a puppet to lend civility to an uncivil regime. Or, perhaps she could find a way to make the performance into a subversive act — imagine if Katy Perry agreed to perform, and then sang “Roar,” the song that she made into a Hillary Clinton anthem during the primaries? Or perhaps a performer could decide that the fractures in the nation could be healed by art. Or that it was just her civic duty.
“The reason I’m doing this is for my country,” Evancho said. At 16, she is too young to vote or participate in politics. But she has also performed at the White House under Obama, which she saw as an honor. “I think it’s sad that we don’t hear poets anymore or that we don’t hear classical voices. Pop is a form of art, too, of course, but I think it’s important to hear a variety of artists.”
“My first, knee-jerk reaction is that I couldn’t do it,” said Blanco. “Because, to write a poem, you have to be so honest,” he says, and he’s not sure that a poem with that level of honesty would be approved by the inaugural committee. “I would wonder, can I do this? Can I have one’s poem and eat it, too?”
In the months since Rader polled his friends, he has been considering his responsibility as an artist. He’s recalled a poem by Pablo Neruda called “The Poet’s Obligation,” which includes the line, “I must feel the crash of the hard water / and gather it up in a perpetual cup.”
“I think we have an obligation as artists to insert our voice into the larger conversation about our country and our culture,” Rader says. “At some level, the inauguration of a president is an affirmation of democracy. On a larger scale, it’s not even about a particular person, but about an ideal — a philosophical project.”
For that reason, Rader has been thinking that he might, hypothetically, try to find a way to say yes. To write a poem that could honor democracy without necessarily honoring a man, that could provide an “alternate vision” of what America could or should look like. “A poet who is given the opportunity to align poetry with that larger democratic project,” Rader said, “should probably think about participating in it.”
It would be, he acknowledged, a difficult decision for any poet to consider. A philosophical “crisis point” that got to the heart of what poetry was, and what it was meant to do.
Elizabeth Alexander, the poet at Obama’s inauguration in 2009, offers the idea that participation in democracy can occur in many different venues — not just a podium in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20.
“What I hope to see on Inauguration Day, and all around it,” she said, “is for poets with varied backgrounds and aesthetics as Americans to raise their voices and offer us hope and vision and love — in spaces all across the country.”