What you may not know about me is that in my other life, when not scribbling down scraps of fiction, working on my novel, or just plain working for a living, I'm a poetry scholar. If I'd continued with my graduate school journey, I probably would have ended up writing my dissertation on some topic in 21st century American poetry/poetics.
To add to that, I was there to hear this thing (hence the InaugurationSARS). Here are my photos.
As a result, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this poem (transcript courtesy of the New York Times).
Here's the deal, folks: it was terrible.
The Guardian's books blog characterized the poem as "too prosy" but that's not the real problem with it. That same blog suggested that Alexander's idea of using African praise song form was a good one, but that she lacked follow-through. That's getting closer to the crux of the problem.
The biggest problem with this poem, in my humble opinion, was that the poem completely lacked lyricism. She must not have fully understood the magnitude of her task: not only was she setting the tone for a historic presidency on an amazing day, but she was also supposed to set the tone for Obama's continuing engagement with the fine arts as a person and as President. Whoops. Not much art went into the writing of that poem. It's like she didn't read it aloud to herself while she was writing it, and the first time it was ever spoken was on the 20th.
The poem's title "Praise Song for the Day" would have been great, for a poem that was actually about The Day, or for something that actually resembled a praise song, in form. Check out the example of praise song that the Encyclopedia Britannica gives.
When I read this, I see nobility, power, beauty. Even in translation, this praise song has a lyricism to it (no doubt a credit to the translator's skill). There is music in the words, and the praise soars so high it nearly reaches godhead. Let's see what Elizabeth Alexander wrote:
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
I don't even have to read past the first line to realize that she has it all wrong: "catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking." The line is clever, sure, but what does it really mean? It means, of course, that we make the noise that is around us. That we don't ever truly listen. Is that really what she wants to say to us at a moment when we have just devoured the words of our new President as though we'd been starving for wisdom? Yikes.
"Someone is[...] repairing the things in need of repair." Oh, really? So it's all taken care of? Great! What did we want this Obama guy to do, again? I know she was trying to raise our consciousness about the importance of the little things, the simple things. By raising our consciousness, she hoped to glorify those small acts. That's why she chose the uniform, and the tire. These things have connotations: service, utility. I'm certain that's what she was going for. It was a nice try, but who, standing on the mall or glued to their CNN, was really going to take that extra step? Also, why is there no music here?
Of course, there's no music here because someone is trying to make it somewhere else, with an eclectic collection of instruments, and is apparently failing miserably at it. The list of instruments itself has no music. It almost hurt to hear her awkwardly rattle them off: "a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." Look at the syllables of the last four instruments: 2, 2, 4, 1. The consonants are unyielding and there's no rhythm to the words. I'm sure she considered her choice of items carefully, but it's clear that she didn't think about the words at all.
I can barely even describe how infuriating the next bit is, to me. It's everything that everyone who hates poetry hates about poetry. She thinks she is doing the world a service by elevating the mundane, but it comes off as nothing more than a laundry list of observations. There is absolutely nothing in the text (nor was there anything in her delivery) that signals that these were simple acts made glorious. Below, I will link you to a poem in which the poet glorifies a trip to the coffee shop, even while contrasting it with the wonders of a trip abroad. It's possible to do exactly what Elizabeth Alexander wanted to do--just, not like this.
"We encounter each other in words," to your detriment, Ms. Alexander. She later goes on to say that in the sparkle of the day, anything is possible, and that we walk forward to see what lies ahead, which as far as I can tell is just a brief paraphrase of every stump speech Obama gave during his campaign. She also throws in something about "figuring it out at kitchen tables," which I can only assume is her one-line homage to Joe Biden's stump speeches.
Combined with Alexander's lackluster delivery, this poem was quite clearly a clunker. If it had been a car, I wouldn't have been able to drive it off the lot without something crucial falling off of it.
It's a damn shame that Gwendolyn Brooks did not survive to write this poem, because I know she would have known exactly how to do it.
President Obama managed to get superstars to cover every other aspect of his Inaugural festivities, especially the music: Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman. Why not a superstar of poetry? And, if the idea was to accentuate the glory of the mundane, why not choose a superstar poet whose entire oeuvre is based on that very idea? I'm thinking, of course, of former poet laureate Billy Collins. As you can see from the linked item, Billy Collins is the biggest superstar in popular poetry for good reason. This man creates the idea of home for Americans like no other poet alive today. He's not Gwendolyn Brooks, but he would have gotten the job done.
For more analysis of the poem (line by line, very thorough) please see the University Diaries blog: http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=8237.
Now that I've spouted off on the subject, let me know what you thought of the inaugural poem. Yea or nay?