On the basis of two poems Barack Obama wrote and published as an undergraduate, Ian McMillan in The Guardian opines that the Democratic nominee for president had
obviously read the Beat poets and writers like Gary Snyder and Charles Bukowski, who knew that the simple words are the best ones, as long as you place them carefully on the page.
Barack likes his line breaks, his enjambments: let's end a line with "broken" and start it with "in" just because we can! Let's make the reader think the chair is a broken chair and then surprise them! Later on, the grandfather's eyes are "dark, watery" and his neck is "thick and oily" as the teenage Obama relishes the sound of words and begins to feel his way around the kinds of things they can do.
In one line Barack "shinks" away from grandpa, a strange word that, according tourbandictionary.com, means "an evasive sinking manouevre", which is clever and poetic. It could also mean to be hit in the face with a penis, which isn't. Or it could be a typographical error.
There's a humanity in the poem, a sense of family values and shared cultural concerns that give us a hint of the Democrat to come; towards the end of the poem Obama sees his face "framed within / Pop's black-framed glasses / and know he's laughing too." He sees himself reflected in his grandfather! If those lines don't end up in a campaign speech, then I'm a tall thin Swede.
From “The lyrical Democrat” by Ian McMillan in The Guardian (Thursday March 29, 2007).
And here is "Pop," written when Obama was 19. To my mind the most potent line in the poem is one of the shortest -- and goes unremarked by the Guardian reporter (himself a poet). The line is "Fail to pass." The multiple meanings of pass, and the syntactical complications of the lines, make it worth pondering. The appearance of "easy" and "hard" in alternate lines (eight and nine) is also worth noting.
Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow;
I'm sure he's unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he's still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He's so unhappy, to which he replies . . .
But I don't care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I've been saving; I'm laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; 'cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop's black-framed glasses
And know he's laughing too.
-- Barack Obama