Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Weighing in on Elizabeth Alexander's Inauguration Poem

While I lay here, recovering from a bout of InaugurationSARS, I figure that I should probably record my two cents on the poetry that attempted to kick-start this historic presidency. I should comment on the poetry (and the poet) chosen to commemorate what was, no doubt, one of the biggest days in America's lifelong struggle with political, racial, and social identity.

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:

Now that I've spouted off on the subject, let me know what you thought of the inaugural poem. Yea or nay?


Unknown said...

RIGHT there with you, Mel! I gotta say... I walked out thinking, exactly as you said, "Wow. This is why I never really cared for poetry." It really was a good example of what everyone who hates poetry hates about poetry (which, by the way, is a brilliant sentence, and I'm going to steal it from you... with proper citations, of course!) It's just... it's too bad.

Melanie said...

After writing this, it occurs to me that she MAY have been trying to say "even though this day is great, life goes on as usual" ... which is just about the opposite of everything Obama's presidency stands for.

As he said, our work is no less valuable, and our products no less desirable than a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. He wants us to keep working hard, but he wants us to renew our commitment to our fellow man at the same time. So if she was going for "life goes on," that's epic failure #2!

Unknown said...

I heartily agree with you, Melanie! And yes, this kind of thing IS why those of us who hate poetry actually hate it. I also agree, although you touched on this only briefly, that that was one of the WORST readings I have ever heard. Way to take a bland, lifeless poem and make it even more bland and lifeless!

Melanie said...

I'm reading more about her, and discovering that her influences in general and for this work in particular were, in fact, Walt Whitman and Gwendolyn Brooks. If we could have crossed Whitman with Brooks to make a poem for this event, it would have been spectacular!

But it didn't work. Also, about reading: as someone who's done a good number of readings, I have to say that if the music isn't there in the text, there ain't no amount of finesse that'll make it come out in the reading.

Conversely, I remember a time when I was in high school, and I volunteered to read a portion of one of Dr. King's letters during my AP U.S. History class...nothing special, just a, "Hey, we should listen to this, does anyone want to read some for us?" deal. People came up to me afterward and told me how much they enjoyed my reading. I didn't put anything in it that wasn't already there, you know? It works both ways.

That's what I was getting at with the lyricism...even Whitman's litanies of our common humanity were filled with carefully constructed lyric beauty. was lacking!

Anonymous said...

I have never read your blog--but honey, you are a keeper. Absolutely dead right about the poem and the analysis. Same conclusion: embarrasingly terrible. Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Naomi S. Nye--I could name dozens. it would have been better to have one of the color guard to recite Rudyard Kipling.
I love poetry--teach poetry--never go a day without reading a poem or two--but this was akin to Vogon poetry. (see Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Thank you for your lucent, graceful critique.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Melanie said...

No, no, no, this is not fair! You lavish me with praise AND quote Hitchhiker's Guide and don't allow me the privilege of finding you on the Internets??? :)

Also, good call on Naomi Shihab Nye.

Anonymous said...

..he wouldn't have dared go with Sharon Olds, now would he!!??

Melanie said...

Re: Sharon Olds...I think he wanted to gently repudiate Bush policies and practices in his speech, but I don't think he wanted to politicize the poetry. The last time people may have heard of Sharon Olds was when she very publicly declined Laura Bush's invitation to the National Book Festival on political grounds.

This article talks about why the current poet laureate would have been an interesting (and again, political) choice:

From what I've seen of Alexander's other poetry, she doesn't appear to be an incompetent poet. I just think she couldn't handle the pressure of writing a poem for such an incredible occasion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you - I agree! It was disgraceful and untimely. This is the sort of thing that harms poetry and lessens empowerment. Sigh. "Simple Gifts" helped pick up the pieces.

English Advantage said...

I found this post via University Diaries. Great analysis of what was wrong with the poem. I'm a huge fan of Billy Collins' and Gwendolyn Brooks' and that poetry that makes simple acts and things glorious or interesting. So I really wanted to like the inaugural poem. But you are absolutely right: she can't get the job done.

Melanie said...

Anne and English Advantage: Thanks for coming by and commenting!

There is a time and place for poetry that breaks things (convention, lyricism, metaphor, structure, etc.) and defies expectations. But a) it has to be done well and b) while inaugurating a history-making President in front of poetry's largest single audience is neither the time nor the place.

Unknown said...

Re: the poem. I know next to nothing about poetry, but I'm pretty sure the above comments are exactly correct. I thought the poem was graceless, ugly and banal. What a disappointment.

Re: the delivery. Here I can speak a bit more knowledgeably. Mel, your comment above about your experience with Dr. King's letters is what we in theater call "letting the text do the work". Absolutely the right approach- when you have appropriately expressive, lyrical text. Sadly not the case here. However, I do have to disagree slightly with one of the above comments- a good delivery can save a bad text to some extent. Obviously, it can't make the text itself good, but it can emphasize meaning, reinforce rhythm, and most importantly, create a connection with the audience. A bad delivery can do just the opposite (think of all the bad Shakespeare you've seen that has turned its audience off completely to classical theater). The delivery here was, if anything, even worse than the poem. That's... kind of an accomplishment, I suppose.

Melanie said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jacy. I see what you're saying about good delivery possibly saving bad text, but in my mind, doing that for this particular text would be no less than a Herculean effort.
You wrote: "Obviously, it can't make the text itself good, but it can emphasize meaning, reinforce rhythm, and most importantly, create a connection with the audience."

Part of my problem with the poem was that there were no rhythms. Good delivery can't emphasize rhythms that do not exist. A speaker would have to create them out of thin air, and I can't imagine how well that could possibly play to an audience. Good delivery could have emphasized meaning, but I found her meaning (where it existed) to be inappropriate for the there's that.

As for creating a connection with the audience...well, one of my previous commenters brought up Vogon poetry. No matter how pleasant the delivery, Vogon poetry is still the third worst poetry in the universe. No amount of geeky love for the subject is going to make a recitation of "Oh freddled gruntbuggly, thy micturations are to me as plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee..." into something that's going to keep an audience's attention (unless that audience is tied up and possibly about to be thrown out of an airlock).

But seriously...I know you've seen some horribly-written plays. I'm thinking of one in particular that I do not dare name. If they'd had, say, William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti in those roles, would the play have been any easier to watch?

Unknown said...

Some more "me-tooing" here! Good God was that poem awful, and I definitely agree with you that its lack of lyricism meant it couldn't be significantly improved even by a skilled reader. I've written legal briefs with more lyricism and praise than her "praise song"! And I'm a tax lawyer!

But aside from the deficiencies in the poem itself, I think the real shame was the missed opportunity to introduce poetry to someone in the audience who thought they didn't like or couldn't *get* poetry. As you aptly described, she simply reinforced that notion. Look, random person on the mall (or in your living room), you don't think you understand poetry...and you're right! No need for you to be curious about this art form! It blows! Watch how disinterested I am when I read it, and - dude! - I even wrote it. Boring! Dull! Lifeless! Do you even know what this poem was about? Me neither!

Now let's contrast that with the work of John Williams. The piece was beautiful. The musicians were radiant and thrilled to be playing it (except that poor clarinettist, who was not mic-ed properly). It was accessible to people who know nothing about classical music (hey, that sort of sounds like something I've heard before!), and pleasant to listen to even if classical is not your bag. It might have changed a few people's minds about classical music. Maybe some of those people who found themselves enjoying the piece might give classical music a chance as a result.

And you know, I don't write poetry - heck, I don't even try - so I feel slightly guilty bashing this poor woman, but honestly! This is Barack-freaking-Obama we're talking about! If he doesn't inspire you to (write) greatness, what moves you, woman?

Melanie said...

Melissa, thanks for commenting! About the missed opportunity for! This was poetry's single largest audience (most likely) in the history of the Western world and quite likely in history, period. That's why I would have argued for a superstar, if the choice had been up to me.

As I said before, she's not a bad poet...but there are just so many poets who should have been in line in front of her...they're used to performing for largeish crowds, and their works already do what she was trying to do, only better.

About the music, I was actually a little surprised about how contemporary it sounded. I know it's a new arrangement, and everything, but John Williams didn't really pull any punches with it. Not that I'm complaining, of was gorgeous AND thematic...turning the conversations between each pair of instruments into a unity of simplicity. The arrangement breathed new life into the familiar, which sounded just about right for the occasion. What's so hard about that? ;)

TigerBuzz said...

I'm not really sure how awful the poem was as read. After the first line I nearly gagged and decided to fast-forward through the rest. Definitely a missed opportunity!

Anonymous said...

[Cross-posted from other discussions/arguments about "Praise Song"]

I liked the poem. I wrote a review,
explaining what I thought worked about it. I think it’s a subtle poem, and (call me overly academic, but) I think the provocations & reactions that it has sparked are a tribute to its effectiveness. People arguing about poetry — I like that! I agree that in style and tone it’s different from what lots of people wanted and expected (John Williams hit much closer to the mark on this count with his musical composition), but if you take the poem for what it is, I think there are some thoughtful and original ideas simmering inside. As I wrote the review, and spent many hours grappling with it and squinting at it, I came to like it more. There’s some good stuff here. . . . that’s my two cents.

Melanie said...

Hi Randy, thanks for commenting. My brother used to work for the Chronicle...I'm going to ask him if he still has a membership so I can see the rest of your review.

I agree that getting people talking about poetry is a positive development from this Inaugural poem. There's no such thing as bad publicity, isn't that what they say? And usually, I am the first person to latch onto something that breaks with tradition and tries to pave new roads. But there were a couple of things wrong with that idea, here:

1. She was not trying to break ground with this. She said, in interviews, that she was looking to Whitman and Brooks for inspiration...two very different poets from different times and different circumstances who are both nonetheless ideal models of traditional American identity poetics. The way that she drew on these two poets is fairly obvious...her whole opening stanza has shades of Leaves of Grass, as I've said elsewhere. And her portraits of individuals call some of Brooks' work directly to mind.

2. Occasional poetry must always keep the audience in mind. In this case, the audience was 2.5 million freezing cold average Americans, and millions more average Americans, seated in front of their televisions. These are people who tuned in, not because they wanted to challenge themselves, but because they wanted to celebrate. For the most part, these people knew that the challenges lay directly ahead. But for the day, they wanted to relax and pretend that the hardest part was over.

I think that the sentiments and ideas she put forth in this poem were not the right ones for this occasion. And I think that the challenging (I'm not convinced, but I haven't seen your review) way she put these ideas forth made it harder for people to believe that their great triumph was enough of a laurel to rest upon--if only for a day.

In layman's terms: the poem was a buzzkill. Even Obama's speech, about the hardships ahead, emphasized that the challenges would be met. So, to directly follow it with challenging poetry that smacked of insurmountable inscrutability? Not the best idea. I'm not saying that an inaugural poem should be "dumbed down," or any such nonsense...poetry's first task is always to make the audience think. I'm just suggesting that the American people might have been more willing to think if the raw materials had been _a little_ more accessible and a little more celebratory.

Experimental poetry is wonderful...I'm certain that it would have been my specialty. I'm not convinced that that's what this was. Either way, it was wrong for the occasion. Imagine putting a flash poem up there instead. Just setting up a laptop and pointing a camera at it. It's not the right for the audience.

Melanie said...

FYI, Randy commented again, but I didn't publish it because it had his email address in it. He has a very interesting take on the's worth a look if you happen to have (or know someone who has) a subscription to the Chronicle.

Anonymous said...

Oy gevalt! It was "The Little Poem That Couldn't."

I agree with most of Melanie's comments on the 'poem' -- it wasn't the message we needed to hear that day; never mind that it also wasn't well-constructed and failed to fulfill the expectations it created.

I find myself wondering if Ms. Alexander really understood what was going on that day (1-20-09). There's a disconnect somewhere! If she did get the context and weight(y meaning) of Sen. Obama's inauguration as our President, then why did she choose to say such dull, hope-less things...and to such a large audience on such an occassion, how did she manage to mangle the (somewhat fragile, to some) reputation of poetry with the nonsensical string of words she spoke?

I'm sure she thought it made sense, was fitting, was beautiful, etc.

Okayyyy....but then I question her understanding of context, of occasion, of beauty. I'm curious why she didn't say much/anything about, er, the President, the Presidency, the Inauguration, America, know: *something* that tied in with the event she was asked to speak at. Publicly speak at.

It wasn't poetry, and it wasn't related to the context/event/Inauguration Day, as far as I could tell.

I don't know who those poets are, Melanie, but I like how you put that: "there are just so many poets who should have been in line in front of her..."

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for opening up the combox. I appreciate hearing from people who care about using language well!

Melanie said...

Hey MB, thanks for stopping by and commenting! My comments box is always open (but, as a note to my readers, I moderate in case people want to send email addresses or secret confessions of love...I always post comments, even inflammatory ones).

The poets who could or should have been in line in front of her include Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, etc. Or they could have asked any of the iLL-Literacy crew or the Nuyorican Poets to do something.

And that's just off the top of my head, from someone who hasn't fully engaged with live poetry in a couple of years.

They could also have asked any talented actor/actress to read from Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Walt Whitman, or Wallace Stevens...Gwendolyn Brooks especially because she left us comparatively recently, and she was the heartbeat of Chicago's poetry scene. If Obama wanted to make that connection, he could do it just as well with a reading from Brooks.

Greg Smisek said...

Like you, Melanie, I found the poem largely banal and wished for some hint of lyricism. However, the only two lines I liked were two that you despised:

1) Perhaps it is just my love for Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems that made me think of "sprung rhythm" in the line "with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice," but as you and others noted, the words themselves force a certain cadence. I might even suggest that the choppy cadence reinforces the disparity of things listed.

2) Maybe I read too much into it, but I took "Praise song for ...
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables." to mean that it is in family and community that we find meaning to an otherwise mundane-sounding life, breaking through into love (the next line). Maybe I read too much into it.

In any case, I can't wait to use the "We cross dirt roads and highways ... [to get to] the other side." in my next collection of "Why did the chicken cross the road?" jokes.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Good morning, Melanie. Thanks for “hosting” this ad hoc forum on the poetry of this past Inauguration Day. (It’s only today that I have an opportunity to look back on January 20.) There are so many incisive comments here, starting with yours.

Billy Collins did write a poem for the occasion – “Launch” is the title…surprising hard to find intact on the worldwide web. Apparently the Associated Press asked a number of poets to create poems for the day. Collins’s was one of these.

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is not grand, but the event itself offers an opening for discussions just like this; and therefore we have the chance to raise awareness of poetry in our lives. So: Is Alexander’s poem…accessible? Does her approach (ordinary or otherwise) help create a broader understanding of poetry?

Or was it so pedestrian – compared to the music – that it was merely a passing event, the sort that fades unnoticed into history? I would have preferred Gwendolyn Brooks myself: She would have raised the grain. Happy weekend…

Melanie said...

Hey Greg,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Thinking more about the names of the instruments, and the choppy cadence they create, I realize that perhaps Alexander was going for more noise--that the lack of flow could be there to evoke a cacophony of many musicians. I love this idea, actually. But I think it would have been more effective if the rest of the poem wasn't also like this, if the unevenness signaled some kind of rhythmic break. I dabbled in slam poetry when I was younger, and I quickly learned how rhythm works (and doesn't work) to convey meaning. If you keep a single rhythm (or a constant non-rhythm), people are going to relax into it, or at least get used to it. If you change it up in the middle, people are going to pay more attention to the significance of the rhythm.

As for the "kitchen tables" thing...if you think America gets bombarded with sound bites during the campaign season, imagine Washington! We get twice as much, because Washington is a company town: national news is local news. When Obama announced Biden as his running mate, he hit McCain with the "kitchen-table issues" thing, saying that it'd be tougher for McCain to deal with those regular-person issues because he'd have to figure out which of his 7 kitchen tables to sit at. That sound bite got 24-hour-news-cycled like crazy, AND we got it double. That's why I can't hear that kitchen table line without thinking it's a paean to Joe Biden.

Titling this poem "Praise Song ..." was probably not the best idea for her...she wanted us to think of praise songs, but not to expect one. A tricky thing!

Melanie said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for coming by and commenting! I think I have argued pretty strongly that Alexander's poem was not, in any traditional sense of the term, "accessible." More to the point, however, I think there are certain ways to make a poem accessible for a listening audience that were probably not considered.

Some of my greatest summer memories involve lying on my back in the sunken garden at the Hill-Stead Museum, staring up at the stars while poets (famous and otherwise) made moods, sending images out across the garden to mix with the scent of citronella and wash over my summer skin. I was a kid then, practically...I was interested in poetry, but I wasn't as well-read then as now (and I'm not what I would consider "well-read" now!). These poets certainly weren't dumbing themselves down for the festival, but even as callow as I was, I could find things to connect with. Often, I'd go back to the poems I'd heard and find even more upon reading, re-reading. But there were definite connections on the first listening...and I think that my standard for accessibility in spoken poetry is based on this idea of connection.

Standing out there on the mall was a far cry from the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival...for starters, the place was packed tight with people who weren't explicitly there to seek poetry, and it was about 20 degrees out, 25 in full sun. But there was still, as there always is when a poet verbally engages an audience, the same opportunity for connections.

Grandeur was not necessary, and in fact, I think that grandeur's avoidance was definitely the way to go. All I wanted was connections...between ideas, between words and sounds, and between the poet and the audience.

I am going to try to find that Collins poem...I'm quite curious. It makes sense...journalists asked fashion designers to design their dream inaugural frocks for Michelle Obama! I wonder if anyone asked other composers to arrange Copeland for the ceremony?

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Melanie, I took a few moments to track it down - found Billy Collins's "Launch" on the Google AP News site along with the other poems. (The url is hugely long.) It reads:

A boat is sliding into the water today
to test the water and the boat
which glides down a grassy bank
the prow touching the wavelets
then another push
and the length of it up and buoyant
the tapered length of it floating
toward the middle on its own
as we watch from the shore
pointing to the heavy clouds coming in
from every side
but now above us only the sun's golden rafters
and the boat afloat
out there on the bright surface of the water.

Happy Sunday...

Melanie said...

Thanks for finding that, Richard. I was coming up empty.

I much prefer this poem to Alexander's. Right away, even, "To test the water and the boat."

It's wonderful.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

"...only the sun's golden rafters" for me, Melanie - and of all the poems, this one is the most concise. I am so fond of Collins's form in this regard. Ta...

Anonymous said...

I have trouble seeing a lack of lyricism as the basis for labeling this poem "terrible." I, too, initially thought it was a bad poem, but more because it simply didn't seem to fit the occasion or do what such a poem should typically be expected to do. As I have searched for examples of "praise songs" from the African tradition Elizabeth Alexander claims to have drawn from, I have found that that same lack of lyricism that we're used to from the Romantic period through contemporary poets like John Ashberry.

I think instead, as I later wrote in a detailed explication, that the keys to the poem are the structure and the flow. Without a sense of the poem from a bird's-eye view, I don't think a word-by-word or line-by-line reading can result in anything but disappointment.

Beyond all this, I'm very thankful for what continues to be an incredibly rich discourse taking place online about this poem and about contemporary American poetry in general.

Melanie said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for commenting. I read your analyses and agreed with a majority of what you were saying. The lack of lyricism was only a problem for this poem because of its purpose as an occasional poem that is meant to be heard.

I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, and I used to perform it. There were some poems I wrote that I would never, in a million years, dream of bringing to readings. Even then, I knew that the best things about those poems would only be lost to a listening audience. This is exactly what happened with Alexander's poem.

Often, a poem that is spoken poorly and does not intrigue its original audience will go on to live a long, beautiful life on the page. The problem with this path, for the inaugural poem, is that the vast majority of her original audience won't seek it out, just because it didn't engage them on the first reading. It's a missed opportunity for poetry as an American art form, and that's what's most disappointing.

Even people who like some poetry are quick to use Alexander's spoken word failure as a way to denounce free verse, prose poetry, or contemporary poetry in general. I don't write as much poetry anymore, but such criticisms still kind of sting.

Anonymous said...

I think it was a poem about broken promises. Ha ha. It promised to be a poem. I had great expectations as an American dullard who didn’t like poetry but learned to like it over the years. I thought it stunk. Is that plain speak enough? I told my college-age student that a grafetti artist in a restroom stall could do better. Again, the age-old question: Couldn’t they find ANYBODY else? I can write better poetry. I thought it was God-awful and so faux erudite I wanted to puke.

Melanie said...

Hey Anonymous,

Thanks for coming by and commenting. I've tried to couch my criticisms in literary and analytical terms, mostly because it's hard to imagine the pressure she must have been feeling. Elizabeth Alexander had a tough task, and from what I've seen of her other work, she seems like a capable poet and an excellent teacher. But even great poets have failed at occasional poetry in the far as inaugural poems go, this one was pretty much par for the course.

I don't think that erudition (faux or otherwise) was really the problem with this poem. Nor was it the "plain speak" you referenced. I do have a question for you, though, in case you happen to stop by again. As someone who has "grown to like" poetry, did you feel condescended to by the poet/poem? A couple of people have mentioned that her delivery made them feel "like first graders."

I was turned off by her suggestion that we never listen. What, specifically, turned you off?

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is a duplicate post-- I also read your comment regarding my comment again, and I noted your first paragraph more. Yes, she must have been under pressure. By erudite, I think I meant she seemed to try too hard or had too many different styles, I just ended up thinking it was more pretentious, maybe. I guess that is a more correct word than erudite.

Thanks for comment. Two items-- --I heard the poems at other inaugurals, and I think I heard that male poet lauriet on a TV program, and so when they said a poem would be read, I got excited. I had forgotten there was a poem. I guess that is why I referenced a growing appreciation of poetry, it just seems to speak to a certain moment and capsulize something, something that prose can't. But, I just got more and more disappointed. I thought it was a bad poem when it began, and more and more throughout the poem I just kept feeling bad. I guess it just did not have much meaning. I think a poem should evoke many feelings, many different feelings, in many people, it should resonate, something you remember it for. Unless I reread that poem, I could not recall one thing or one feeling, other than a bleakness, the depressive images and odd words (brambles, spiny). And, I don't think was appropriate to the occasion. So it kind of fails on that level, also.

2nd part-the appreciation of poetry. Disclaimer: I've read so few poems or lit, I guess I just did not understand poetry or literature in school (I'm 57). Over the years, probably the last 5, I have thought if the handful of poems that I know have made such an impact on me, there must be an impact to poetry. Earlier in my life I would not have thought there was an impact to poetry. That's what I meant by a growing appreciation of poetry. Books I liked better and could see what the attraction was, but poetry I just did not. I love the poem I did read in high school, Terrance This is Stupid Stuff, which I just found out is by Housman. In college, I read "Because I Could not Stop for Death" on my own, and that was pretty powerful. Most of the poetry or its impact I discovered on my own-so I think that aided in the appreciation of poetry. Things "stuck" that maybe in a class situation would not.

I thought the poem at the inaugural would be a time to DISCOVER how a poet thought about the day, and I was just disappointed. It did not seem like discovery to me, did not seem to have the effect that a poem should have.

Lastly, I have a personal story about the power of poetry that is funny to me, but is probably the first time I really thought about the impact of poetry. My son was in high school and was supposed to write a poem. I found a handwritten poem that was bitter and powerful, and I immediately thought, I have to stop smothering him, I have to start paying more attention, I have to let him grow up. Then he told me it was part of a poem--I forget, but perhaps it was Howl by Ginsberg. I mean, talk about the power of a poem. All that thinking and emotion in the minutes after I read it.

Melanie said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for coming back! I absolutely agree with a lot of what you're saying. Poetry, in general, does not require an emotional component. However, and this is what you've so aptly keyed in on, poetry that is meant to be read aloud to an audience SHOULD stir some emotion in that audience. Failing that, a spoken word poem should at the very least reward the audience for having listened.

I'm not saying that the poem has to be simple...far from it...but spoken poetry is a time for a poet to create a rapport with an audience, communicate something to them, change their worldview or their lives, and leave with a parting shot. If a listener can't engage in the first stanza, the rest of it isn't going to have much of an effect.

I also agree about your desire for discovery. Scroll up to where Richard posted Billy Collins' poem "Launch" and let me know what you think.

Thanks for sharing that great story about Howl (it's one of my favorites too).

Anonymous said...

Hi again. I read your comments about spoken poetry, emotion, etc. I think you're right--some things I did not think about before.

Launch--Just a little breakdown of it, believe me I don't really know much, I just wanted a poem that was a poem, that spoke to something in the occasion and the BIGNESS of the occasion.

A boat is sliding into the water today [Gives an image, appropriate, something most of us have experienced, speaking of a beginning, metaphorical, also ease--sliding]

to test the water and the boat [Both things, the water and the boat-The President and the people]

which glides down a grassy bank
[again, ease, and movement of the boat--glides--the election is over; the grassy bank, again the ease of this day, in comparison to the campaigning or the building of the boat, a day of celebration, excitement-the boatbuilder looking forward to see what will happen]

the prow touching the wavelets [the beginning of a new term; wavelets- that's good, not just waves, but wavelets, the incremental starting, also inauguration day]

then another push [continuing the term of office, also introduces effort, "push"]

and the length of it up and buoyant
[this is kind of triumphant "up and buoyant" and "the length of it," that's pretty and eloquent]

the tapered length of it [at first I did not like "tapered length," thought it was awkward, but after I kind of like it, and spoken it may have been pretty effective, adds a different image]

toward the middle on its own [nice, speaking both of comfort and ease in the phrase "on its own" and of difficulty, the beginning of the boat taking over and the boatbuilder having to sit back, being both in control and controlled, see what will happen; also begins a kind of foreshadowing "on its own," who knows how it will do or what will come?--also the middle, where most people in America are on politics]

as we watch from the shore [We the people, and the President]

pointing to the heavy clouds coming in [obvious reference]

from every side

but now above us only the sun's golden rafters [a little corny, but still "golden rafters" is nice language and "above us" kind of taking us back to the day, inauguration day, takes us back to the immediate purpose of the day]

and the boat afloat
out there on the bright surface of the water. [A lot, -- the boat afloat, now it seems really out there on its own. ALso, the two images, the sun and the boat--the immediate moment and the boat and its progression. Also, the boat is afloat--it made it so far, and the country is still afloat. Bright surface, hope.

Yes, I kind of like it. Pleasant, understated at first, but it kind of grows on you. Images you can visualize, some uniting common experiences in the images (unlike Alexader's attempt which seemed more alienating than uniting), some good use of language and some hope. What I really like about it on third or fourth reading is the MOVEMENT in the poem--movement by the boat, but implied is movement by the boatbuilder and the people.

On first reading, I thought it was just adequate, but inclusive and both cautious and hopeful. But it grows on you. But if SPOKEN--as you outlined--it may have been a lot more powerful and the message of hope more powerful.

And the President is from Hawaii, and so I think it may have been a pleasant image for him. He'd have probably saw the water as WARM:). Probably not a lot of grassy slopes in Hawaii that you launch boats from, more like beaches?

I don't know if this would have been as BIG or descriptive or inclusive or bright, as adventurous or "poetic" in terms of discovery as I was expecting, Lord only knows what I was expecting, something to open up like Proust's Madelaine, I guess I just had sky-high expectations at the moment they said "poem." But, I think it WAS, on further reading, bright and inclusive, speaking of common effort, we are all launching that ship. A little slim I think on "poetic" words still, but some nice touches and if it were spoken, it would have been better--also, the length was appropriate to the day.

That's all. Long post again. sorry

Anonymous said...

Actually, the ending is kind of haiku-like. I like the ending as I first interpreted it, as only one image, the sun and boat together "out there on the water"-- the launch is complete. Kind of brings out the meaning of the title. Only later did I see it as contrasting. I like it better as one image, the launch.

That's all.

Jabbersmeltzy said...

Hi Melanie -

I know I'm almost two weeks late on your post, but I stumbled across it as I googled Gwendolyn Brooks...
If you have a chance, I'd love for you to stop over at my blog, as I posted a brief essay on Alexander's inaugural poem and then had, which is way better, a casual conversation with Nikki Giovanni on the subject just a few days ago. I think you'd like to see the exchange and my step back from my initial, fiery position, which was eerily like yours. The blog's at

I'd love if it you'd have a second to read over the posts! They're brief, I promise.

Melanie said...

Hello, ASmeltz! Thanks for coming by and commenting.

I did take a look at your posts, and I encourage anyone else who happens to come by this blog to do so as well.