His Octopus Teacher

Craig Foster’s Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, did everything a documentary should do. Beautifully filmed, it followed a clear narrative and gave a generalist audience scientific information mixed alongside a real-life character arch. How could anyone object to such a film? Pippa Bailey in The New Statesman does just that.

She starts by mocking Foster’s friendship with the octopus: ‘“I remember that day when it all started…” Foster intones, as though it’s the start of a romcom; the music swells when she reaches for his hand.’ Bailey fails to point out that he never gave the octopus a name and throughout the film elucidates the biology and behaviour of the octopus in ways that obviously distinguish it from human. Example: he informs us that most of the octopus’s cognition is in their arms.

Bailey goes on the attack of Foster’s approach to his subject: ‘Foster imagines the octopus as being like “a human friend”, waving to say, “Hi, I’m excited to see you”; he can feel her trust for him, he says, her invitation into her world. He wonders what she’s thinking, what she dreams about.’

Reading this, I couldn’t help but to think about the way people interact with their dogs and cats, treating them very much like human friends. When dogs behave in ways akin to the human for ‘excited to see you’ it’s because we have trained them to behave like that with stimuli of food, petting and playful exercise. As for cats, who display limited understanding of humans, we talk to them as if they care and when it’s bleeding obvious that they don’t care, we praise them for their independence. Furthermore, the therapeutic value of having pets is well documented. According to QI, the act of cuddling a dog can relieve stress for up to six months after the cuddle. Given that Foster points out at the start of the film that he was at a crossroads, unproductive as a film-maker and troubled by this in a way that sounded like a mid-life crisis wrapped in depression, this therapy was needed.

Having said all of this, I do think Bailey makes some cogent points. She notes: ‘There are, to my mind, two extremes in documentaries about animals: those that present the animal kingdom as separate from people, their only human presence David Attenborough’s narration (other presenters are available); and those, such as Tiger King or the masterful Blackfish, that document an overly close relationship between humans and animals: obsessive, intrusive. My Octopus Teacher doesn’t go that far…’ Bailey goes on to say, ‘Animals are not there for us, to be treated as commodities or companions as we see fit; to be reduced to their usefulness to us. Nature does not exist to alleviate our restless emptiness, much as it may do so.’ I agree with that, and Tiger King was at times hard watching for these reasons – profit motive and self-aggrandisement reigned supreme (pun intended). But I don’t think that Foster’s documentary erred in these ways. In the end it was clear that animals have their own, often cruel, life cycles that we humans need to give space for by not continuing to destroy our natural environment.

Bailey’s conclusion: ‘Must we view an octopus as a friend, a saviour, a teacher? Couldn’t we simply settle for not eating them?’

My conclusion: An octopus can be a friend, a saviour, a teacher, or simply something of the natural world to marvel at. But whatever you do, don’t eat them. 

My new nook

To call it an office or writing space or den doesn’t do justice to a space where I meditate, read, daydream, write and connect with the world through my laptop. I’ve also grown weary of the ‘room of her own’ cliché. Simply put, a writer needs a space to create and get on with the job of writing. Over the years, I’ve integrated my writing space with my meditation space, realising that I need mindfulness to think, thinking to write and writing to practice mindfulness.

When we moved house a few months ago we decided to use space in a creative and more utilitarian way. What was referred to as bedroom one, the second largest room next to the dining/living room, became my office. Bedroom three, also referred to by the estate agent as ‘dining room’ as it was connected to the conservatory, became our bedroom. Bedroom three may have been a tight fit for our bed, but since it was a room only used for sleeping and marital recreation, this made sense. I was blessed with the big room looking out over the front garden, our quiet street and in the distance the West Tower of Ely Cathedral. A writer’s dream.

But you can’t dream, or even daydream very well, if you can’t sleep. Our new bedroom may have been at the back of the house, but it was lit up at night by a streetlight from a private carpark. The conservatory glass doors, windows and ceiling made sure of that. On the other side of the equation was my new office, which needed to double as a dressing room with wardrobe and dresser, and it needed to ‘triple’ (new verb) as an exercise room for me with my yoga matt and hand-held weights (David uses the living room). To top it off, this dream office shared a wall with David’s African-themed office, which meant that he could hear me talking to colleagues in Zoom and waffling in French during online sessions of ‘Le Book Club.’ After a couple of months of light sleeping and working around each other, following other renovations that had to come first (functioning kitchen and bathroom), we did the big switch.

In the larger bedroom with the wardrobe, dresser and space for the yoga matt, we are both sleeping more easily, and we no longer need to squeeze around the bed. My new office is smaller than my last office but has the quiet and privacy I need to meditate to think to be mindful. Looking through the conservatory doors and windows into the garden, I’m writing this from my office nook.

Dalton Trumbo wrote in his bathroom.
Patricia Highsmith in her nook.

Biden to the rescue – in a manner of speaking

More progressive and radical than anticipated, Biden’s address to the nation to mark his first 100 days in office last week may have been dull in delivery, but its impact cannot be understated. While political pundits are still sizing up what can actually be achieved from the president’s proposals, I’ve been thinking about what all of this means in more existential terms.

Despite not being legally or constitutionally meaningful, the first 100 days of a US presidency has become a symbolic marker. FDR was the first to attach significance to the 100-day anniversary as he was out to prove his worth for getting America out of the Great Depression. Unlike many of his predecessors, Biden finds himself in a similar position to FDR as the world deals with waves of a pandemic and its economic aftermath, along with the kaleidoscope of damage left in the wake of the Trump years.

Biden’s first 100 days have been busy with government taking a more active role, and due to the pandemic, which has killed over half a million in the US and left one out of five Americans out of a job, people obviously need that. In his address to the nation, he spoke about continuing in this vein, along with green energy and healthcare being controlled and financed to a greater extent by government. Going against the ethos of the past forty years from Republic and Democratic presidents alike, Biden noted that ‘trickle-down economics has never worked.’ He has proposed growing ‘the economy from the bottom up and the middle out’ by reforming corporate tax, which has long favoured the rich, and raising the minimum wage.

Reading the analyses these past few days and now the reports of Biden trying to sell his ideas to Republicans and their supporters, I’m left with a couple of thoughts. First, Biden is no longer the anyone-but-Trump president. He is starting to become a leader characterised by his own agenda.  With this I’ve already notice the change in public discourse. It’s not likely that Biden will be able to fulfil all of these promises, and there will be compromises and lost battles along the way. But by setting these humanitarian goals in a boring presidential language, Biden is changing what people are talking about and how they are talking about it. Trump promised that a wall would be built between the US and Mexico. That promise was not fulfilled, the wall never built, but for four years people talked about immigration and white supremacy – often aggressively, either following Trump’s rhetoric or vehemently ridiculing and mocking him.

This leads me to the second thought: I’m enjoying for the first time in some years the feeling of hope. I’m not alone in this – only last night I heard socio-political author Michael Lewis answering the question of what he thought of Biden’s presidency so far, and without hesitation he said ‘It gives me hope.’  Hope holds incredible powers. Emily Dickinson once said, ‘Hope is a thing with feathers,’ and like birds, hope can survive the harshest of conditions, navigate through the unknown and inspire us to keep living. As her words are better than mine, I close with the full poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

-Emily Dickinson

The US President flanked by two women congressional leaders.

Brexit Stories

When it comes to spy stories, I usually prefer films over novels, and when I occasionally make an exception, I dip into the worlds of John Le Carré. This time not because it was a spy story, but because it was a Brexit story. Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in 2019, capturing that heady time period after the European Referendum of 2016 but before the withdrawal agreement was signed and enacted upon at the end of 2020.

In this spy caper, one of the main British characters declares, ‘It is my considered opinion, that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.’ Familiar? Yes, it sounds as if paraphrased from the actual comments of many remainers, famous and not-so-famous, the banter in local pubs and in the many rallies and marches at the time. 

So, too are these gems from the mouths of British characters in Le Carré’s novel: ‘The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people.’ And, ‘I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances. Things that were wrong with Europe could be changed from inside Europe.’

One of the Russian-born characters embodies the view from outside the UK when he says, ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?’ ‘Tell me.’ ‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.” 

For me, this spy story was more interesting for its background than for its foreground. It presented a nostalgia of sorts. Not a rose-tinted view of the recent past, which was stressful in its 24/7 argumentative mode while trying to stop the march off the cliff. This nostalgia rests in a time when like-minded people were talking about how this referendum happened and the immediate impact of the results. These were stories told and opinions laid bare that are now well cemented into the past.

What are the stories we are living in now? Some one hundred days ago the transition period ended and Britain officially left the EU. The European Movement has produced a report organised around the personal narratives of ten people whose lives have been affected by Brexit. To no surprise, the mini stories come from a farmer, a small business owner, a fisherman, a professional musician, a teacher, a refugee and an EU citizen trying to gain their ‘settled status’ in the UK, along with a few stories that are less personal, but still poignant – a professor speaking about the recent violence in Northern Ireland and a climate activist and a human rights campaigner both mapping out the current struggles Britain faces going it alone.

I’ve been reading and watching similar stories in the British media, but not as leading stories – these are sometimes stuffed in the middle, reduced to a ‘human interest’ or regional status. Since the beginning of the year – the start of the official Brexit – the pandemic, the riots at the US Capitol, the start of the Biden years and other stories have butted the Brexit fallout from public discourse. This moratorium on Brexit talk has been helped in the UK by politicians of all stripes not willing to enter into this contentious topic again. 

I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for another popular writer of fiction, spy novelist or other, to write the truths of this time. 

Paul Theroux at 80

Time has folded up on me again with Paul Theroux celebrating his 80th birthday last weekend – surely, he can’t possibly be 80. The writer marked the occasion with an engaging essay in The New Yorker reflecting on his professional life, drawing on the personal and adding in a few points of literary criticism.  (Facing Ka‘ena Point: On Turning Eighty | The New Yorker). Theroux has long been a writer I can relate to as if we came from the same place and time – which his birthday and this current essay remind me we haven’t. Theroux grew up in a small town in Massachusetts in the 40s and 50s, a far cry from Chicago in the 60s and 70s. I probably share more experiences with Theroux’s sons, the documentary filmmakers Louis and Marcel in both life’s timelines and being more British than American.

We also couldn’t be more different when it comes to how we work as writers. In this New Yorker essay, he notes: ‘My method has not changed: still the first draft in longhand, to slow me down and make me concentrate, and then I copy it by hand, and finally I type it.’ Being a keyboard and screen aficionado, I can’t read this without feel bewildered and anxious.

I confess, I’ve only read one of Paul Theroux’s novels, The Mosquito Coast, and a few of his short stories. My secret friendship with Theroux comes from reading his essays about his travels and his family, revealing how he has developed psychologically over the years. In Granta 48, he wrote wryly about his time in Malawi working for the Peace Corps and living in a leper colony. I read it in the early 90s and still remember details from it today. Although my experiences as a traveller and someone who has lived in different countries isn’t as dramatic as that, thankfully, there is camaraderie in being the outsider, bringing humour to the most stressful of situations and reinventing yourself along the way.

Years later, Theroux again writing in Granta described large families: ‘The words “big family” have the same ring for me as “savage tribe”, and I now know that every big family is savage in its own way.’ This rings true with my own experience, and I still have a few scars. We both are one of seven children, Theroux in the middle and I the runt of the litter. In the current New Yorker piece, looking over his 80 years, he brings this up again, but from a different angle. Theroux and I escaped our large families by leaving home early, fending for ourselves, ‘living by my [or our] wits.’ I know exactly what he means when he writes about moving far away from family and saying, ‘I didn’t know the word “individuation,” the process of separation by which one gains a sense of self.’ If my life had a title or heading (I still don’t know what it would be), the sub-header would include this idea of individuation.

Many happy returns, PT, from another PT. 

Reflections on translation

1 – Among my favourite mistranslations are Welsh signs that have been translated by English-speaking officials in their efforts to retain bilingualism in Wales. One sign written as Rhybudd: Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro, which in Welsh means ‘Warning: Blasting in progress’ was translated as ‘Warning: Workers are exploding.’

2 – Recently, there was quite an uproar over whether a white translator should be allowed to translate the work of a black writer. Dutch writer and winner of the International Book Prize Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was tasked with translating Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem into Dutch. The most vociferous attacks came from activist-journalist Janice Deul, who said it was ‘incomprehensible’ that a white person had been chosen for the job. If sharing an identity grouping is necessary between writer and translator, Deul missed out the fact that Rijneveld was born female and identifies as non-binary, making ‘them’ even less qualified. In this way of thinking, Rijneveld should have gained some points for being a poet and in their 20s, like Gorman. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the publisher to cave in at the thought of a boycott and lost book sales to pull Rijneveld from the assignment and issue an apology for the poor choice of translator. I share in the sentiments of Gorman’s Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, who described Deul’s victory as a ‘catastrophic…victory of identitarian discourse over creative freedom.’ 

3 – Apparently, historians had deliberately mistranslated – or perhaps creatively translated – love letters sent by Frederic Chopin to his many men ‘friends’ in order to make the composer appear straight. According to one German source (er, which has been translated into English), many of the translations from were fraught with consistent ‘errors,’ such as male pronouns in Polish being translated as female in the target language.

4 – In Nice, there’s a restaurant with a bilingual menu that lists the French salade aux avocats in English as salad with lawyers. Bon appétit.

5 – Language documentation involves the preservation of dying languages, mostly indigenous languages that have lost out to conquests and the globalisation of the world’s leading lingua francas, such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic. I was pleased to read about a linguist who has been translating newspapers dating back to the 1890s from Hamaii, the dying native language of Hawaii, into English. Even though the original project was about documenting the language and the culture of the pre-American Hawaiians, a by-product has been the discovery of a treasure trove of meteorological and geographical information. Climatologists are now using these digitalised translations to help predict earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other potential disasters.

6 – George Steiner once said, ‘Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.’

The Digital Divide

It’s easy to talk about the digital divide in terms of generational differences and the overused ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital migrants.’ I used these phrases myself in academic articles and in my book Digital Textuality, citing Marc Prensky (2001), the person who coined the terms. In the early days of the internet and portable devices, stark differences appeared between those aged 40+, who restricted their use of computers to work and personal emails, and youngsters, who seemed to have superhuman skills at thumbing text messages, pirating music and coding their own webpages. But in the world of technology, those days are ancient history, and age is no longer what distinguishes the computer literate from the luddite. 

Today we have a new digital divide, one that is less straightforward and harder to joke about. While the power of computer technology and influence of social media are often overstated, if this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that people need computer technology and the support to use that technology to work and study from home and to feel included in their families and communities.  Those without access to this technology have clearly suffered more than those with it. 

I recently attended an online conference where Dr Jane Seale of The Open University spoke about people with learning disabilities and the impact the pandemic has had on them. Compared with the general population, people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die from covid. This alarming statistic is being used by researchers while the UK government claims that the death rate is only four times higher. The same government has attempted to explain this away by citing the fact that people with learning disabilities are more likely to have other health conditions (e.g. obesity and diabetes), live in care homes and find social distancing difficult.

What we haven’t been hearing from governments (and it’s not just in the UK) is how people with learning disabilities have been cut off from their carers, whether family members or other support staff, because they have fallen on the wrong side of the digital divide. For the learning disabled, computers can be particularly challenging. Worse still, carers and support workers might also have limited experience with computers. I witnessed this myself a few years back when I was involved in adult literacy training and often went to care homes for the elderly and learning disabled to help support staff improve their literacy. Typically, these carers had mobile phones and could work with apps and images, but stayed clear of written language and computers. While there have been a few stories in the British media about children with learning disabilities being cut off from schooling and care during the pandemic, adults in this group are not being reported. I suspect the media is reflecting society and catering to the interests of their audiences. Dr Seale summed it up when she explained that  ‘People with learning disabilities are among the most ignored in our society.’

Middlebrow reading and moving house

Just before moving house a few of weeks ago, I had started doing the keyboard equivalent of jotting down ideas about ‘middlebrow’ reading for this blog. I was going to recommend a few books that I’ve recently read but realised that middlebrow is a highly subjective term. That was around the time we had thought contracts had been exchanged on the buying of one property and the sale of  another, but they had not and we hadn’t heard from our solicitor in days. It looked like everything was going to fall through.

Back to the blog. What is meant by middlebrow has changed in connotation over the years. For modernists like Virginia Woolf, middlebrow was pejorative, reserved for aspiring intellectuals and cultural poseurs. The post-modernists, I guess I fit in best with that grouping if it doesn’t get me trolled, give middlebrow a more neutralised power as part of the general culture, accessible and culturally significant as an art form.

Moving house is stressful and all encompassing. It permeates all thoughts. While I was reading Little Fires Everywhere, a social satire by Celeste Ng, the subplot about a mother and daughter living a nomadic existence, going from one town to the next, became the main plot because it involved moving. The real main plot for those of you not moving home revolves around the Richardsons, a suburban American family run by a stereotypical 50’s era mother (though the story is set in the 90s). Their lives, brimming with secrets and intrigue, are rocked by the arrival of an artist, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl and a court case involving the adoption of a child abandoned by its mother. The different threads come together in this study of identity and motherhood.

Contracts were finally exchanged and moving day was just a few days away when I found a quote to use in my blog. Ezra Pound once said: ‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’ I’m assuming ‘great literature’ refers to highbrow, keeping with the literary banter of the day. Interesting, but ‘charged with meaning’ could mean many things, such as colourful metaphors or turns of phrase or it could signify language that is meaningful in the context that it has created and described. The house we’re moving to does not have a functioning kitchen. Cooking food and eating are meaningful. My mind drifted around design plans and buying a stove and hob, avoiding the meaning of meaning.

Moving day went smoothly despite Covid restrictions – everyone wearing masks, doors and windows open, social distancing with the broadband installer and movers. That is, everything went smoothly until we closed the windows and turned on the heat. Nothing – no heat in a house that had been empty for six months. To make matters worse, that February afternoon it was 7C, and it would be five days before we would have a working boiler.

During these chilly days huddled around a portable electric heater, I thought about the other middlebrow read that I was going to recommend, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, much of which takes place in the cold.  Lacroix, a wounded British officer, has returned from the Napoleonic Wars haunted by an atrocity that occurred in a Spanish village. Once he has recovered, he is ordered to return to fighting, but instead flees to Scotland. His travels include arriving in Glasgow, where he is mugged on the street and his boots are stolen. All I could think about is feet numb with cold. In the meantime, a kangaroo military tribunal decides that Lacroix is to blame for the killings in the Spanish village, and soon he is being chased by two comically inept officials. The story develops along the lines of thriller and romance, peppered with comic moments and Lacroix’s sagacious reflections.

Three weeks on from our move, the new kitchen has been installed and David has laid down wood floors in two of the rooms, including my office. With books on the shelves and boxes unpacked, I continue to read good fiction, middlebrow and highbrow, I suppose.

Mars, Venus, Men, Women – An assignment I’d like to forget

One of the strangest writing assignments I’ve ever had involved adapting  The Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus Book of Days into an abridged reader for students of the English language. Based on the 1990s best-selling pop psychology book by John Gray, this book contained  365 ‘inspirations to enrich your relationships’ (according to the jacket blurb). 

The premise of the original book was that by nature men and women are  psychologically and behaviourally different and that heterosexual couples should respect these differences. Along with spreading the idea that men and women ‘speak different languages,’ it reinforced gender stereotypes, saying that men need to fix and do things, leaving women to  talk about emotions. As Victorian and cringeworthy as that sounds, it had an audience at the time and has since sold over 15 million copies. 

As for the sexes speaking different languages, this anecdotal claim has been thrashed to death by sociolinguists, who have studied large groups of people and concluded that the perception of language difference between the sexes is far greater than the reality. An excellent debunking of Gray’s work appeared in Deborah Cameron’s 2007 book The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Today, we can confidently say that gender differences are more nurture than nature. In her book Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It, Angela Saini cites several studies of mathematical ability, intelligence, motor skills and almost every other measure showing consistently that men and women are not so different after all. (Sorry, dear reader, I know I have referred to this book before – it’s a treasure trove of information and insights.) Another good read on this topic is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain, where  the author, a cognitive neursoscientist, reviews the lamentable history of sex-difference research that has been riddled with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias and dodgy statistics. 

But there I was back in 2003 rolling my eyes while typing ‘men are like rubber bands’ and ‘women are like waves.’ Thankfully, I was halfway through my assignment when the marketing department at Penguin Books decided to pull the project and not publish the EFL version of Gray’s book of days after all. I never found out what was behind Penguin’s decision. I wonder if they were concerned about the emerging scandal, where John Gray’s credentials were questioned – he’s not a scientist or trained psychologist and apparently holds a mail-order doctorate. Or perhaps Penguin had a crystal ball and knew that engendered thinking was going to be challenged, further diminishing this variety of self-help tome . As much as I don’t wish to dwell on this silly assignment, I’m glad I can look back on it from the vantage point of a more informed world when it comes to men and women (even though we still have a way to go). In the end, I was doubly blessed – not only was I freed from reading and having to rewrite this piffle, but I had already been paid a flat rate for the entire assignment and was able to keep it.

Inauguration Poetry

Agreed, Amanda Gorman’s reading of her poem was the highpoint of the Biden/Harris inauguration. ‘The Hill We Climb’ is clearly inspirational, a poetic version of a political speech that like Biden’s inaugural address identified the malaise America finds itself in while not shaming by naming the last occupant of the White House. Gorman’s poem was beautifully delivered and appropriate in the context of place and ceremony.

Reading it on the page, however, was a less satisfying experience for me. The repetition of ideas expressed through different analogies and the length of the work took away some of the sparkle. Having said that, I’ll quote the passage that struck me as the most valuable for our times:

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.

It may have been written for America, battered from the last presidency and threatened by domestic terrorism, but it applies to all citizens of our planet. We are all stricken with an environmental crisis for which inaction is no longer an option. I also like this passage’s cathedral thinking – a willingness to work on project that we know will not be completed in our lifetimes.

The final stanza of Gorman’s poem, with its repetition of ‘we will rise from…’ I assume to be a nod to Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise,’ a more famous poem than ‘On the Pulse of the Morning,’ which she wrote and performed (she was truly a performer) for Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

Common to these inauguration poems, including Richard Blanco’s ‘One Today’, read at President Obama’s swearing in, are the references to different states and parts of the country with their varied landscapes. A bit of ‘American The Beautiful’ meets Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Which I think is a shame, making the works appear more derivative than intertextual.

Perhaps one of the best inauguration poems wasn’t intended for the ceremony at all. For Kennedy’s inauguration Robert Frost struggled with sun in his eyes and the wind flapping the pages of his specially written poem. He soon gave up and  recited from memory ‘The Gift Outright,’ which he knew was a favourite of JFK’s. First published in the 1940s, ‘The Gift Outright,’ unlike the other mentioned poems, is short and doesn’t go from sea to shining sea. It recounts the founding of America by the early colonists, who claimed the land, but didn’t actually possess it until they fought for it and created their own government. The poem ends fittingly with the idea that America’s future lies in the creation of its own history, stories and art:

To the land vaguely realizing westward, 
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, 
Such as she was, such as she will become.

Postscript: The last president didn’t have any poetry at his inauguration. But in this way he wasn’t unique or his usual un-presidential self. No Republican has ever had a poet read at his inauguration. Even poetry is partisan in America.