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Barack Obama’s Two "Poems": "Pop" and "Underground"
Obama and Frank Marshall Davis, "Pop"?
Around age 19, Barack Obama wrote and published in the Occidental College literary magazine, Feast, two pieces of doggerel titled “Pop” and "Underground." The flaws in these two pieces reveal the potential (or lack thereof) of the literary and rhetorical abilities of the future president, whose skill with words lies solely in his interpretive reading ability.
The president’s "poem" titled “Pop” consists of one 45-line free verse paragraph. The piece offers a sketch of what appears to be a father-figure to the speaker and a glimpse into the relationship between the two.
First Movement: “Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken”
The speaker places his father-figure in his usual chair where the latter watches television, while enjoying his “Seagrams, neat.” The man, called Pop, is accosting the young man by rhetorically questioning him, asking, “What to do with me?” The speaker asserts that Pop thinks his young charge is just a “green young man / Who fails to consider the / Flim and flam of the world.”
Pop advises the young man that the latter's sheltered existence is responsible for the young man’s ignorance of the “flim-flam” world. The speaker just stares at the old man, who seems to exhibit a facial tick, with his eyes darting off “in different directions / And his slow, unwelcome twitches.”
Second Movement: “I listen, nod”
The speaker then employs a surrealistic style as he continues to describe his encounter with Pop. The speaker listens politely, nodding occasionally, as the old man declaims, but suddenly the speaker is “cling[ing] to the old man’s “[b]eige T-shirt, yelling / Yelling in his ears.” Those ears have “heavy lobes,” and the old man is “still telling / His joke.” But the speaker then asks Pop, “why / He’s so unhappy.”
Pop starts to respond, but the speaker does not “care anymore, cause / He took too damn long.” The speaker then pulls out a mirror from under his seat. The confusion here mounts because the speaker had just claimed he was clinging to Pop’s shirt and yelling in the old man’s ear, which would have taken the speaker out of his seat. This confusion adds to the surreal nature of the episode.
After pulling out the mirror, the speaker asserts that he is “laughing, / Laughing loud.” What he does with the mirror is never made clear. But during his outbreak of laughter, Pop “grows small” shrinking to a “spot in [the speaker’s] brain.” That tiny spot, however, “may be squeezed out, like a / Watermelon seed between / Two fingers.”
Third Movement: “Pop takes another shot, neat”
The speaker observes that Pop “takes another shot, neat,” but he probably means that the old man took another gulp; it is not likely that the father- figure is measuring out each swig with a shot glass. With this gulp, Pop “points out the same amber / Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and / Makes me smell his smell, coming / From me.” During the exchange, while clinging to Pop’s shirt, the speaker has stained Pop’s shorts, and Pop wants the speaker to realize his blame for the stain.
Pop then changes TV channels and “recites an old poem / He wrote before his mother died.” He then rises from his seat, “shouts, and asks / For a hug.” The younger man realizes his smallness before the size of Pop: “my / Arms barely reaching around / His thick, oily neck, and his broad back.” But the speaker sees himself reflected in Pop’s “black-framed glasses.” And now Pop is “laughing too.”
The Typo "Shink"?
Much has been made of the obvious typo in the line, “For a hug, as I shink, my.” The word is obviously “shrink.” Pop had shrunk to the size of a watermelon seed a few lines earlier, and now the speaker shrinks as he realizes how much smaller he is than Pop.
It is quite possible that in the last line “know” is an additional typo, for the word “now” would be more appropriate. It would be nonsensical for the speaker to say he knows Pop is laughing when he is right there looking into his face. But it makes sense for him to report that during the hug Pop also begins to laugh.
The future U. S. President Barack Obama's second effort at poetry writing, "Underground," reveals a fantasy world where fig-eating apes breathe underwater, while dancing and tumbling in rushing water.
The title, “Underground,” indicates a location under the land, and it could also be indicating metaphorically some event or transaction not open to public scrutiny or awareness: an example might be a secret network similar to the Underground Railroad. However, no such meaning can be gleaned from this versification.
First Movement: “Under water grottos, caverns”
The first line, “Under water grottos, caverns,” indicates that the setting for the activity is not “underground,” but, in fact, it is underwater, “Under water grottos, caverns.” While the preferred spelling for the plural of “grotto” is “grottoes,” such an amateurish error is minor compared to the repetition of the similar terms, grotto and cavern. There is a difference in the denotative meanings of those two terms: grotto can be man-made and decorative while cavern is natural.
Immediately, the bumbling speaker befuddles the reader by employing those two terms, which because of their different meanings imply different connotations. Is the cave decorated by human beings or is it not? Is it a "grotto" or a "cavern"; it cannot be both.
Those underwater caves, which may or may not be decorated, are teeming with land-dwelling, mammals who breathe air. The piece, then perhaps, becomes a verse of surreal fantasy.
In any case, the reader must, at this point, suspend belief in order to continue, learning about those animals—“apes,” that eat figs. This fact is nothing out of the ordinary, because apes do love fruit, but why the versifier chooses to employ “figs” must remain a mystery. No speculation can approach a satisfactory answer.
Second Movement: “Stepping on the figs"
The speaker then asserts, “Stepping on the figs / That the apes / Eat, they crunch.” This apparently misplaced modifier jumbles the message—who steps on the figs? It would appear that the apes would be doing so because no one else with feet appears in the grotto, no one except the apes. But the subject of the clause “they crunch” is the figs; although probably the result of the misplaced modifier. Surely, the figs are not "stepping on" themselves.
Third Movement: “The apes howl, bare”
It now seems that the "crunch" sound inflames the apes so that they start to “howl” and “bare their fangs” as they “dance.” The only reason for the ape-dance is that someone stepped on figs and made them crunch. Is the ape excitement motivated by anger or is it urged on to gladness by the crunching of their figs?
Fourth Movement: “Tumble in the”
Often a sign of an amateur poet is a line ending with “the”: “Tumble in the / Rushing water.” The frivolous diversion of this awkward enjambment distracts from the list of activities engaged in by the apes after their figs were stepped on.
The reader may summarize the activities of the apes: they “howl, bare / Their fangs, dance, / Tumble in the / Rushing water.” They do all of these things while their “Musty, wet pelts / [are] Glistening in the blue.” It remains ambiguous as to what “blue” refers: it would seem to be the water, but the scant amount of light peeping into the underwater cave would allow only enough to render the water's color to appear black.
A Failed Versification
This piece of doggerel fails for three significant reasons: (1) misuse of grammar/diction, (2) awkward enjambment, but most importantly, (3) lack of meaning. The apes may be charming, even endearing with their figs and their musty pelts, but the reader concludes the visit with them, baffled about what they might have communicated in the hands of a genuine poet, instead of in the hands of immature amateur whose lack of a literary sensibility has misused them.
Obama and Letters
Neither "Pop" nor "Underground" bodes well for the American literary canon, but both do exemplify the literary lack of acumen that has been on display since Barack Obama first took the national political stage in 2004. His ability with letters exists only in his skill as an interpretive reader.
When asked about Obama's literary potential, Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University, remarked: "If I had been shown these poems by one of my undergraduates and asked, 'Shall I go on with it?', I would have rubbed my forehead and said, 'On the whole, my dear, probably not. Your future is not as a person of letters'."
Jack Cashill writes: "Los Angeles media critic Kevin Roderick rightly described the exposure of Obama’s two published poems as a 'semi-cruel exercise'. In a similar spirit, the Independent of London headlined its article on Obama’s early poetry, 'Pop goes myth of Obama the young prodigy'.”
An Interpretive Rendering of Obama's "Underground"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes