Frank Marshall Davis's "Young Man"

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©Jack Cashill - March 4, 2010

In 1981, the 19 year-old Barack Obama published two poems in the spring 1981 edition of Occidental College's literary magazine, Feast.

One is a silly adolescent ode to "apes that eat figs" called “Underground.” The second is an obviously superior poem called “Pop.” Critic Warwick Collins rightly describes it as "by far the more powerful and complex" of the two, and his is the consensus opinion.

Several mainstream reviewers have chosen to see in "Pop" the seeds of the literary genius that would flower in Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. A closer inspection, however, shows an early sign of Obama’s willingness to take credit for something he could not himself write.

This chicanery would reach fruition in Dreams, the acclaimed literary success that laid the foundation of the Obama genius myth. The evidence that Obama pal and mentor, Bill Ayers, largely ghosted this memoir now overwhelms the objective reviewer.

“Pop” too is almost surely ghosted, and the ghost in this case would have been an earlier Obama mentor, the communist poet and pornographer Frank Marshall Davis. What makes Davis’s involvement interesting is that the poem is surely about him as well.

My confidence in this thesis derives not just from the startling difference in style and sophistication between “Pop” and “Underground,” but from the equally startling similarities between “Pop” and a 1975 Davis poem titled “To A Young Man.” (Kudos to my correspondent who unearthed it.)

In each of the poems, the young man is the narrator. This is more obvious in “Pop” as the poem was published under Obama’s name. In “To A Young Man” the young man’s narration is implicit.

In both poems, the old man, the Davis character, is discussed in the third person. In the 1981 poem, the narrator calls him “Pop;” in the 1975 poem, “the old man.”

In each poem, when this older character speaks to the young man, he does so without benefit of quotation marks. In “To A Young Man,” the Davis character says on one occasion:

Since then I have drunk

Half a hundred liquid years


Through restless coils of wisdom

Note the similar flow of language in “Pop”:

Pop switches channels, takes another

Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks

What to do with me, a green young man

As is evident in these two short samples, both poems are written in free verse and make ready use of what is called “enjambment,” that is the abrupt continuation of a sentence from one line into the next.

There are parallels in word choice as well as style. “Neat” means without water or ice. “Neat” and “Distilled” both suggest a kind of alcoholic purity. Each of these words is emphasized by isolating it from the flow of the text.

In each case, too, the older man shares his wisdom with a “young man” who may not be eager to hear it. The young man of “Pop” dismisses that wisdom as a mere “spot” in his brain, “something
/ that may be squeezed out, like a/ 
Watermelon seed between/ 
Two fingers.”

Comparably, the narrator of “To A Young Man” observes that the old man “walked until/ On the slate horizon/ He erased himself.”

Whether “squeezed out” or “erased” from the young man’s consciousness, the Davis character understands just how tenuous is his hold on the lad. For all his awareness, however, he finds a certain drunken satisfaction in the exchange.

Towards the end of “To A Young Man,” the old man “turned/

His hammered face/ To the pounding stars/ Smiled/ Like the ring of a gong.”

“Pop” also concludes on an upbeat note, “I see my face, framed within
/ Pop’s black-framed glasses/ 
And know he’s laughing too.”

There is no reason to believe that the “young man” of the 1975 poem is Obama. The reader is told that the younger fellow is twenty years old and that the old man is fifty years older.

Davis was precisely seventy in 1975, but Obama was no more than fourteen. Lacking too in the 1975 poem is the intimacy and anxiety that characterizes “Pop.”

In fact, “Pop” hints at both a blood relationship between the two men and a sexual one. The very name of the poem implies paternity, and in the poem the young man uses reflections and mirrors to show a physical resemblance between himself and the old man.

As to a possible sexual relationship between Obama and the admittedly bi-sexual Davis, the poem offers some intriguing evidence: “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.”

Although it is impossible to confirm that Davis either sired Obama or sexually abused him, this imagery does at the least reek of some unsavory boundary violation.

As compensation, Davis may well have slipped this “green young man” a poem for publication. Such an everyday fraud would not have seemed unethical to an old man used to the “flim and flam” of a world where “one plus one” does not necessarily make “two or three or four.”

Trained to believe that nothing adds up and the deck is stacked against him, Obama has seemed from the beginning entirely comfortable with his counterfeit literary career.

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Editor's note: For a more complete account of this phenomenon, read Jack Cashill's amazing new book, "Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture.


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