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Barack Obama's "Pop"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Frank Marshall Davis and Barack Obama, II, a.k.a. Barry Soetoro

Frank Marshall Davis and Barack Obama, II, a.k.a. Barry Soetoro

Introduction and Text of "Pop"

The spring 1981 issue of Feast, Occidental College’s literary magazine, published two poems, "Pop" and "Underground," by erstwhile literary prodigy, Barack Obama. According to Jack Cashill, long-time researcher of Obama's literary efforts, Obama's writings suffer from, "awkward sentence structure, inappropriate word choice, a weakness for clichés," and "the continued failure to get verbs and nouns to agree." Obama’s poems suffer from similar language indignities but also include further issues relevant to poems, such a faulty line breaks, confusing mixed metaphors, and inappropriate use of surrealist images.

Although readers can forgive a 19-year old for adolescent scribblings in non-sense, especially in poems published in a college lit mag, what they cannot do is discern that this particular adolescent was showing any potential to produce a future writer. Likely, the future, and now former, occupier of the Oval Office could have become a capable interpretive reader, and it is possible that Barack Obama would have served more admirably as an actor than writer or president.

Barack Obama, a.k.a. Barry Soetoro, possesses a unique charm that could have been employed in creative ways, if he had kept his focus on the humanities and entertainment fields instead of politics and government. The Obama administration, tainted by incompetence and corruption, has altered the American political landscape more intensely than any other in American history. For this misdirection, Barack Obama is less to blame than his handlers, beginning with political American terrorist Bill Ayers, continuing with political hacks David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. His coterie of political advisors steered him in a direction that has enriched Obama and that coterie financially, instead of enriching society in a humanitarian field of endeavor.

The former president’s piece titled "Pop" consists of one 45-line versagraph. The piece’s awkward, postmodern codswallop represents much of what is despicable and destructive in most postmodern art.

Pop

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
Two fingers.
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.

Commentary

The man addressed in Obama’s "Pop" is likely Frank Marshall Davis, long thought to be Obama's biological father. Barry called his Grandfather Dunham "Gramps," not "Pop."

First Movement: Sheltered Young Man

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.

The speaker places his father-figure in his usual chair where the latter is watching television, enjoying his "Seagrams, neat." The man, called Pop, begins accosting the young man by flinging at him a rhetorical question: "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 counsels the young man that the latter's sheltered existence is responsible for the young man’s failure to recognize the "flim-flam" world. The speaker then stares at the old man, who exhibits a facial tick, while his eyes dart off "in different directions / And his slow, unwelcome twitches."

Frank Marshall Davis Is "Pop"

While many reviewers of this poem have interpreted Pop to be Stanley Armour Dunham, the maternal grandfather who raised Obama, the former president’s hagiographer, David Maraniss, in his biography, Barack Obama: The Story, reveals that the poem, "Pop," focuses on Frank Marshall Davis, not Stanley Armour Dunham, and the details of the poem all point to the truth of that revelation. That Obama’s grandfather, who raised him, would be addressing such an issue with his young charge is untenable. If the boy is incapable of considering the "flim-flam" of the world, whose fault would that be? It would be the person who raised the kid.

Obama’s relationship with Frank Marshall Davis, however, provides the appropriate station for such a topic of conversation. Davis took it upon himself to help the young Obama see the world through the lens of a black man in America. Again, if "things have been easy for" the young Barry, it has been the grandfather who made them easy; thus, for the grandfather to be accosting the boy for that supposed flaw would be absurd.

Obama’s grandfather introduced the boy to Davis for the purpose of providing Barry with the advice of an older man who had lived the life of a black man in America. The Dunhams were heavily invested in identity politics as likely members of the Communist Party, as was card carrying member, Frank Marshall Davis. The grandfather was of the inclination that he could never guide a young black boy in certain areas but that Davis could. Whether that sensibility is accurate or not is the topic for another day, but the topic being discussed by the speaker of this poem precludes the poem’s addressing Obama’s white grandfather.

Faulty Line Breaks

Many of the bad line breaks in the poem demonstrate the amateurish nature of the poetaster, who makes the rookie flaw of ending several lines with the definite article "the." About Obama’s use of line breaks, poet Ian McMillan sarcastically observes: "Barack likes his line breaks, his enjambments: let's end a line with ‘broken’ and start it with ‘in’ just because we can!"

Second Movement: Surrealistic Encounter

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
Two fingers.

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." This shrunken seed image of the speaker’s pop implies a level of disrespect that is quite breathtaking as it suggests that the speaker would like to eliminate Pop from his mind.

Third Movement: Smelling the Stain

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.

The speaker observes that Pop "takes another shot, neat," but he probably means that the old man took another sip; it is not likely that the father-figure is measuring out each swig with a shot glass. With this swig, 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. At least, that’s one way to interpret the smelling the stain scene. Others have inferred a sexual reference in the "smelling" scene, but that requires too much of a stretch, that is, a reading into the text what is not there and not implied.

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 in comparison to 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 reference to a poem written before Pop’s mother died also eliminates Grandfather Dunham as "Pop." Dunham was only eight years old, when he discovered the body of his mother who had committed suicide. The notion that an aged man would be quoting a poem that he wrote before he was eight years old is patently absurd. Plus there is no evidence that Grandfather Dunham ever wrote any poetry, while Frank is famously known as a poet, as well as his other endeavors in political activism and pornography.

"Shink" Is a Typo and "Know" Is Likely "Now"

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.

Interestingly, the editors of the New York Times quietly corrected the "shink" to "shrink" when they published the poems on May 18, 2008, in an article under the title, "The Poetry of Barack Obama." The editors did not correct the obvious error "know" for "now" in the last line.

Sources

Barack Obama I, Barack Obama II, Frank Marshall Davis

Barack Obama I, Barack Obama II, Frank Marshall Davis

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes