December 29, 2010
Early Obama Poem Shows Davis's HandBy Jack Cashill
Many thanks to my correspondent, "Mr. Southwest," for surfacing an early and revealing Obama poem that I had heretofore not seen.
The unnamed poem, which I will call "Forgotten," was unearthed for a lengthy March 2008 article in Vanity Fair by the magazine's national editor, Todd Purdum. It reads as follows:
When Purdum mentioned the poem to Obama in 2008, Obama told Purdum he had no memory of it. (By contrast, I can still recite the poem that won a class contest when I was a freshman in high school.) After Purdum read the poem to Obama, he said, "That's not bad. I wrote that in high school?"
The poem, which was published in 1978 or 1979 in Obama's high school literary magazine, is not bad at all. In fact, for a B-minus jock at a Hawaii prep school, the poem is exceptional. The question that must be asked, however, is the one that Obama himself poses: did he actually write it?
As to the content of the poem, Obama told Purdum, "It sounds in spirit that it's talking a little bit about my grandfather." Note that the subject of this sentence is "it," not the expected "I." As he does even in the forward of his acclaimed 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama distances himself from his presumed composition.
The "grandfather" Obama refers to here, of course, is his mother's father, Stanley Dunham -- "Gramps," the Willy Loman character with whom Obama lived during much of his adolescence. If the critics are to be believed -- and they ought not be -- that makes two early Obama poems about his grandfather.
The second poem, called "Pop," was published under Obama's name in the Occidental College literary magazine in 1981. Rebecca Mead, for instance, writing in the New Yorker, unhesitatingly describes "Pop" as a "loving if slightly jaded portrait of Obama's maternal grandfather."
Obama biographer Remnick makes the same point. "'Pop,'" he says, as though a given, "clearly reflects Obama's relationship with his grandfather Stanley Dunham." I could find no mainstream publication that even suggests otherwise.
The two poems do seem to be about the same person, a world-weary older man with whom the young Obama has a personal relationship. In "Forgotten," the old man's "eyes, so dull and grey / Slide from right to left, to right." In "Pop," the "dark, watery eyes" of the old man "glance in different directions."
The contention that "Pop" is about Dunham, however, leaves a basic question unanswered: why did Obama not call the poem "Gramps"? If I were to write about the man I knew as "Gramps," I might not necessarily call the poem "Gramps," but I surely would not call it "Pop." That latter title, after all, has obvious implications.
The case for Dunham as "Pop" is further weakened by the line in the poem "he switches channels, recites an old poem / He wrote before his mother died." Although Obama credits Gramps with a little poetic dabbling, Dunham was more of a dirty limerick kind of guy than a real poet.
As an adolescent, Obama did have a relationship with a real poet: Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist and pornographer but also a skilled writer. "I could see Frank sitting in his overstuffed chair," Obama remembers in Dreams, "a book of poetry in his lap, his reading glasses slipping down his nose."
Obama continues, "[Frank] would read us his poetry whenever we stopped by his house, sharing whiskey with Gramps out of an emptied jelly jar." As to the sharing of sage advice, that description fits Davis better than it does Dunham. "I was intrigued by old Frank," Obama writes in Dreams, "with his books and whiskey breath and the hint of hard-earned knowledge behind the hooded eyes."
A 1987 interview with Davis recorded by the University of Hawaii shows the man Obama describes as "Pop": the drinking, the smoking, the glasses, the twitches, the roaming eyes, the thick neck and broad back.
More to the point, Dunham's mother died when he was eight years old. Obama knows this. He says so in Dreams. Dunham would not have read a poem he wrote "before his mother died." Davis's mother, however, died when Davis was twenty and had already established himself at Kansas State as a poet of promise.
On one occasion in Dreams, the teenage Obama stops by Davis's house alone, and there Davis pours him his own shot. "Pop" seems to memorialize such visits:
A little more obliquely, "Forgotten" captures a comparable experience.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half-sister, would describe Davis as her brother's "point of connection, a bridge ... to the larger African-American experience." Both "Pop" and "Forgotten" would seem to validate that assertion.
Davis, however, may have been more than mere bridge for Obama at this stage of his life. In my forthcoming book, Deconstructing Obama, I deal with the sexual innuendo implicit in "Pop" as well as the explicit suggestion of paternity in the poem's title.
Here, I will just deal with the issue of authorship. In reading Davis's poems -- his estate denied me permission to reprint them -- one senses that he is more than just the subject of the two Obama poems. In fact, "Forgotten" and "Pop" have as much in common with Davis's 1975 poem "To A Young Man" as they do with each other.
All three poems show a comparable sophistication in language and structure. Written in free verse, each makes ready use of what is called "enjambment" -- that, is the abrupt continuation of a sentence from one line into the next.
Each too deals with an intimate, ambiguous relationship between a young man and his much older mentor. In all three poems, the Davis character is discussed in the third person. In "Forgotten," he is the "old, forgotten man." In "To A Young Man," he is "the old man." In "Pop," of course, the narrator calls him "Pop."
In "To A Young Man," the Davis character says on one occasion, "Since then I have drunk / Half a hundred liquid years / Distilled / Through restless coils of wisdom." Note in "Pop" the similar flow of language: "Pop switches channels, takes another / Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks / What to do with me, a green young man."
There are parallels in word choice as well as in style. "Neat" means without water or ice. "Neat" and "Distilled" both suggest a kind of alcoholic purity. The author emphasizes each of these words by isolating it from the flow of the text.
In "Forgotten," the poet suggests a certain purity to alcohol as well, referring to a likely flask pulled from underneath his coast as "forgotten dignity."
At the conclusion of all three poems, the young man receives some useful wisdom from the older man that cuts through the alcoholic haze and adds meaning to the old man's life.
In "Forgotten," "a transient spark" lights the old man's face. "Pop" also concludes on an upbeat note: "I see my face, framed within / Pop's black-framed glasses / And know he's laughing too." In the Davis poem "To a Young Man," the old man "turned / His hammered face / To the pounding stars / Smiled / Like the ring of a gong."
Curiously, Obama's "Pop" reads more like the Davis poem than it does Obama's earlier poem. In "Pop" and "To A Young Man," for instance, the older character speaks to the young man, and he does so without benefit of quotation marks. More consequentially, each of these two poems has a leaner style than "Forgotten" and a whiff of cynicism about it.
The young man of "Pop" dismisses the old man's wisdom as a mere "spot" in his brain, "something / that may be squeezed out, like a / Watermelon seed between / Two fingers." Comparably, the old man in the Davis poem "walked until / On the slate horizon / He erased himself." Whether "squeezed out" or "erased" from the young man's consciousness, the older character understands just how tenuous is his hold on the lad.
This is more hunch than science, but I suspect that as a reward for the young Obama's friendship, Davis may well have slipped this "green young man" a poem or two for publication. Nowhere else in his unaided oeuvre, such as it is, does Obama show the language control he does in "Pop" or "Forgotten."
Such an everyday scam would not have seemed unethical to an old Communist used to the "flim and flam" (Pop) of a "crooked world" (Forgotten) where "one plus one" does not necessarily make "two or three or four" (To A Young Man).
Trained to believe that nothing adds up and the deck is stacked against him, Obama has seemed from the beginning entirely comfortable with a counterfeit literary career.
Signed copies of Deconstructing Obama can be pre-ordered at Cashill.com.