the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2013 / Spring 2014



Inaugural Poetry, Clinton and Benghazi
by Robert Klein Engler


Painting by
Robert Klein Engler

Inauguration Day. For some it was a cold, but glorious day. For others it was a day of work and deadlines. For others still it was a day in which they felt another part of their beloved country had slipped away. It was a day that called for poetry.

A poet should understand that if she is invited to read her poetry at a presidential inauguration, then she is there not for her poetry but for her politics. This means she can read anything, just as long as the politics is progressive.

Not to worry. No one will remember the poetry, just the politics, anyway. Who remembers Maya Angelou's veiled reference to dinosaur turds in her poem at the Clinton inauguration? Just grumpy critics, that's who.

how to pick a poet

Richard Blanco was selected to be the first openly gay Latino poet to read his poetry at a presidential inauguration. Have you ever heard him described as a poet who just happens to be gay and Latino?

The reasoning for Blanco's selection could go something like this: What is the minority du jour? It's gay, of course, and Latino, too.

Imagine this conversation deep inside the bowels of the inauguration committee's command post:

"Are there any gay, Latino poets?"

"Let's see. We'll Google it. Here's one. Richard Blanco. He's gay and out. Oh, dude, he's from Cuba, too."

"Can it get any better? Let's assign him the job of writing an inauguration poem."

For progressives it looks like there is a three-step process to select a poet. First, you select the minority group, then you make sure of the politics, and then you praise the poetry.

After the selection is done, calls are made and airline tickets purchased. No one warns the poet that poetry is not an assignment.

poetry is not an assignment

The literary critic Gloria Klein wrote, "Lyric poetry has an aura of necessity about it…Poetry does not begin with an assignment…Nothing in poetry comes from simply assigning words to things."

"Only when something comes into our being with such force that it dislodges words, the way electrons are dislodged by an atomic reaction, is poetry possible."

"Assignments throw words at things, with the hope some will stick. The poet realizes an experience of such power that words are dislodged from the place where language and things meet…in poetry, it is not mud we are after, but electricity."

It's hard to find electricity in a poem about an inauguration that half the country regrets. For now, let's just give backward praise to the poem we heard and say about Richard Blanco that as a gay poet he rose to the occasion.

The full text of Richard Blanco's inauguration day poem can be found here:

a poet of sorts

Ambassador Chris Stevens was a poet of sorts. Because of the betrayal at Benghazi, he couldn't make it to the inauguration, but before his death Stevens wrote a short lyric. It's safe to say his verse below was not an assignment, but is it a poem?

"Now, gather 'round the ol' Steinway and sing…
From the halls of Foggy Bottom, to the shores of Tripoli,
We advance our Nation's interests, in the land of Qadhafi.
In our pinstripes and black wing-tips,
we're the best that we can be;
As we go from souk to citadel, to conduct diplomacy."

We can only wonder if Mr. Blanco knew the truth about what happened to Chris Stevens and the rumors that Stevens was also gay. If Blanco did, would he have written a different inauguration poem? The Latin poet Virgil found the betrayal of Dido a better source of poetic inspiration than apples, limes and oranges.


Some politicians suggest poetry not so much by their rhymes but by their unforgettable statements. We remember the ancient Roman Cato saying over and over again in his orations, "Carthago delenda est," Carthage must be destroyed!

Secretary Hillary Clinton's remark, "What difference does it make," referring to the Incident at Benghazi and the death of ambassador Stevens won't be forgotten, either. Her outburst was not like Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, yet it gives us insight into the corrupt, progressive politics of our age.

Clinton's other memorable one-liner was delivered while she was running against Obama for the Democrat Party's nomination. She said of Obama, "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose."

Probably more poems have been written about, or words thrown at, Hillary Clinton than she has written herself. It was Maya Angelou, a fan of the Clintons and fellow progressive, who rhymed about Clinton's tenacity:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Here is the stuff of an inauguration poem for the next president. Who will they call on to deliver the poem if Mrs. Clinton manages to rhyme her way into the White House?

throwing words

If progressive poetry is nothing more than throwing words, like mud, at a topic and hoping some words stick, why not give it a try. What if we assigned a poet the task of hammering all these elements together: an inauguration poem about the death at Benghazi and Clinton one-liners?

You may read below the results of our assignment by the fictitious Libyan poet Muammar al-Islamiyyah. Not to worry, Muammar's poem isn't as long as Blanco's. As one tweeter said of his long poem, "Malia Obama has grown another four inches since this poem began."

Nor will anyone say about "One Benghazi Day," what Dr. Johnson said about Milton's "Paradise Lost," "No one ever complained it was too short."

No need to look for well-crafted iambic pentameter lines, resonant phrases or rhyme, either. Rhyme is for the lower orders, like polyester pantsuits. Just don't forget to mention your mother, and avoid heavy-handed metaphors.

The immediate lesson of "One Benghazi Day" is that recent inauguration poetry, like most contemporary poetry, is first and foremost a political assignment. Pick the minority, then, pick the poet.

Progressive politics is a mold into which modern poetry is often poured. Once we know this, then we understand that much of contemporary American poetry takes the shape of advertising for progressive causes, haunted by the ghost of William Carlos Williams. "One Benghazi Day" stands as an example of what we mean.

We'll wait for the critics and professors of literature to praise the poetry of "One Benghazi Day." They will tell us if the poem succeeds in uniting the private and public spheres into a work that reflects the existential crisis of our time, or if the poem is "exhausted by its own energy."

Needless to say, some progressive critic will not read "One Benghazi Day" as a parody, but declare the poem a cry of hope from a man who has been forced to live too long in the shadows.

"When will Muammar's love of death be given the respect it deserves?" they ask. Perhaps the respect for death will come on a future inauguration day for Hillary Clinton.

"One Benghazi Day (a fiction)"

One sun rose on Benghazi, today,
bright over Libyan shores,
peaking over the sea, greeting the faces
of the Mediterranean fishermen, spreading a simple truth
across the desert, one light, waking up mosques,
inside each one, an AK-47,
held by blue jihadists moving behind windows.
What difference does it make?
Burnt out buses, the rhythm of morning-prayer,
fruit stands, dates, limes, and oranges are arrayed like bullets.
Tie a headscarf as my mother did.
What difference does it make?
I could write this poem.

Many prayers, but one light
breathing salt into the bloody sand,
while mothers watch their children slide into
night when they tie on a vest of bombs and die.
What a difference it will make.
All of us as vital as the one shadow we move through,
the same shadow on roadside bombs with lessons for the day:
trajectories to solve, RPGs to buy, the "I have a dream"
we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary
to explain the empty rooms of our blown up children.
They became a pink dust.
What difference does it make?

One ground rooting us to every palm tree,
every grove of figs sown by sweaty
hands, hands gleaning with the infidel's blood,
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and wires to C-4,
hands as worn as my father's, cutting off an infidel's head,
so my brother and I could have books and scarves.
What difference does it make?

(The text goes on for many more stanzas, but they are omitted so as not to cast a "dormific" spell over the reader.)

We head home: through the gloss of dust,
dragging the dead ambassador through the streets,
always--home, always under the Libyan sky,
our sky. And always one crescent moon
and one star, always the green flag,
every rooftop and every window,
with a sniper for one country—all of us—
facing the Venus star.
Get out the greased poll.
Name it death and rape and revenge.
There is no truth greater
than a lie in the service of jihad.
What difference does it make?
All there is until the Day of Doom is dust.


Robert Klein Engler lives in Des Plaines, Illinois and sometimes New Orleans. Many of Robert's poems, stories, paintings and photographs are set in the Crescent City. His long poem, The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering, set partially in New Orleans, is published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He has received an Illinois Arts Council award for his "Three Poems for Kabbalah." If you Google his name, then you may find his work on the Internet. Link with him at, to see examples of his recent paintings and photographs. Some of his books are available at Visit him on the web at Mr. Engler is represented by OnView Gallery, 139 N. Northwest Hgy, Park Ridge, IL, 224.585.0503.

Throw Me Somethin' Mister:

Shirts of Flame:


Jane Crown Radio Interview: