Donald J. Trump is not known to be a man of letters. He reads little; his books are ghostwritten, and some even suspect he may be nearly illiterate. No one of those facts on its own is damning, but put together, it’s reasonable to assume he is no connoisseur of literature. Thus, when on Tuesday I read that a poet had been selected to read for the inauguration, I didn’t hold high hopes for a masterpiece.
But when I read the poem, I was aghast, along with many other writers. The content itself was shocking if unsurprising: the reference to President-till-Friday Barack Obama as a “tyrant,” the glowing description of “Melania the fair,” the strained comparison of “Domhnall” (a Scottish form of Donald) to the Highland warriors of old. But it was the poetry itself—rigid, overwrought, and over a century out of date—that sent writers and poets into a tizzy. The poem read like a ninth grader’s understanding of poetry.
Morbid curiosity led me to MacKenzie’s website. His bio is one of the most inflated and grandiose things I’ve ever read. Claiming to be “New Mexico’s first traditional lyric poet” (an unprovable claim at best), Mackenzie states that his professor at St. John’s College, Charles Bell, noted that his sonnets “surpassed many of Shakespeare’s,” a laughable claim even if the doggerel that is “Pibroch of the Domhnall” were any good. Among his listed accomplishments is “[rejecting] the crippling dogmas of modernism and [remaining] faithful to traditional principles of lyric verse.” And what is so wrong with the early 20th-century literary movement called modernism? According to Mackenzie, “Backward old elites have censored traditional lyric poetry because it clashes with their Marxist-totalitarian world view. The result has been complete censorship of traditional lyric verse and the loss of the ability to produce it.” This claim, at minimum, is blusterous and overblown. MacKenzie’s entire bio read like parody.
So I dug deeper, and the more I dug, the more things smelled funny. I looked for his writings elsewhere, for a poet on par with Shakespeare, he hasn’t published much. In fact, his only work available to the public is the inaugural poem. The only references to his masterpiece, Sonnets for Christ the King, show up nowhere outside of references to the inaugural poem, his own website, and a cybersquatted page to the nonexistent arspulchra.org . (There is an Ars Pulchra magazine, but it is available at magnificatmedia.com and concerns itself with Renaissance music, not 19th-century revivalist poetry.) Another suspect bit of information was that his name was listed elsewhere as Mackenzie, not MacKenzie. The former spelling is Highland Scottis, the latter Lowland, but not everyone knows this, and it was possible that other publishers had simply typed the name incorrectly.
Then I came across his résumé. Much of the information carried over from the bio presented on MacKenzie, though his career, mostly vested in library science, could be found nowhere on MacKenzie’s site. And then another puzzle, right at the top of the résumé: the name Joseph McKenzie—this is not a Scottish spelling at all, but an Irish one. I assume people know how to spell their own names, especially on their own résumés.
This revelation led me to Twitter and the account of Joseph C. MacKenzie. Lo and behold, he started his account on the morning of January 17, 2017, referencing only his now-infamous inaugural poem. Now, it’s entirely possible that a person might expand their social-media presence when thrust into the spotlight, but this evidence, combined with all else I had gathered, led me to one conclusion: we had all been duped by an elaborate hoax.
The perpetrator of the hoax had, perhaps as recently as Sunday the 16th, concocted the identity of Joseph Charles MacKenzie, cribbing some information from a random résumé and grabbing the photo of the real Joseph McKenzie from the University of New Mexico website (the MacKenzie bio claims it to be a “young” photo of him, whereas the university page would hint that it’s relatively recent.) “MacKenzie” then submitted his poem to the legitimate Society of Classical Poets, who published it Monday. The next day, media response came first from The Scotsman, and then gained momentum on Tuesday in The Independent, by which point the poem had captured the imagination—and ire—of the American people, leading to praise, denouncements, and an ingenious reworking by poet Jay Dodd. By the end of Tuesday, Snopes determined that neither the poem nor the poet would be a part of the official inauguration festivities, though “Pibroch of the Domhnall” continues to garner attention.
There’s always the chance that I’m wrong, and if Mr. MacKenzie/McKenzie will step forward with sufficient evidence, I will gladly rescind my claim with all due apology. But to this point, the evidence doesn’t stack up in the poet’s favor.
I’ll admit that we live in a time in which satire is essential, for it is in the most brutal dictatorships that satire is suppressed. But good satire tips its hand; the audience is in on the joke. Sadly, too much of what is called “satire” today is in truth a hoax, or sometimes an outright lie. If I see a lie, I’ll call it out, and encourage all good men, women, and others to do the same. The truth is more important now than ever.
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