Thursday, January 22, 2009

Strike three ...

... Another for the Stuffed Owl: Elizabeth Alexander manages to compose history’s worst inaugural poem. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

What Kanfer says is mild compared to Patrick Kurp's thoughts:`No Social Function'. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)
“Praise Song for the Day,” in fact, is not poetry but an inferior species of prose. It is what one expects from an earnest junior-high-school student with little gift for language, or from a professor at Yale.

I didn't watch the inauguration (the only one I can remember seeing is Kennedy's!), and I haven't read the poem, but the lines quoted in Kanfer's article are dreadful. Had I been asked, I would have suggested to Alexander that she read the Gettysburg Address and pay close attention to its simplicity and brevity. Something contrasting in style and tone to the the pomp and circumstance of the event, while remaining apposite to true patriotic sentiment, might just have done the trick. That would have required, however, what the Augustans - masters of public poetry - called decorum, which is hard to come by these days.


  1. Hi Frank,

    I really like the poem. It's below, so to be handy in the thread.

    The negative is the first line, not being grabby enough, and some have said cliche or too mundane, not poetic enough. But it is the jumping off point to ponder, and from which the rest develops. And that's what the poem is about, a series or mesh of progressions, that places us in our world from noise and brambles, to what we make of it in love, those brambles ever present. It's a praise poem sure, but a love poem in this sense.

    An inauguration poem would have received more applause, but maybe as much critique, if Nikki Giovanni had written a poem and spoken it, or Maya Angelou, and let me slip in Mark Doty lest these all be black women poets. Or imagine Patricia Smith, who may just have been the one who could have upstaged Obama.

    But we had Elizabeth Alexander, who placed a poem for us to "consider, reconsider." She's not only marking that particular day in time with its "sharp sparkle, this winter air," but letting that day stand for "Each day we go about our business." She's saying that the love that got us to that Inauguration Day, is the same that we have each day, with its noise and thorns, and its veritable winter air, winter air and brambles.

    In this sense, not only is the poem appropriately humble, as she finds herself following Obama on this occasion, but her delivery is simply to place the poem, its words, into its place, something for our tongues, that we may carry the good meanings, the love we have, as we go to and explore the other side, building our edifices, we will then "keep clean and work inside of".



    (at YouTube)

    by Elizabeth Alexander

    Praise Song for the Day

    Each day we go about our business,
    walking past each other, catching each other's
    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.

    We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
    the will of some one and then others, who said
    I need to see what's on the other side.

    I know there’s something better down the road.
    We need to find a place where we are safe.
    We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

    Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
    Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
    who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

    picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
    brick by brick the glittering edifices
    they would then keep clean and work inside of.

    Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
    Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
    the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

    Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
    others by first do no harm or take no more
    than you need.
    What if the mightiest word is love?

    Love beyond marital, filial, national,
    love that casts a widening pool of light,
    love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

    In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
    any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
    On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

    praise song for walking forward in that light.

  2. Hi Frank,

    As I noted at Bryan Appleyard's blog just now:

    This morning I find E. Ethelbert Miller's take:

    E-Notes: The Poem

    And her led me to Brian Gilmore's article here:

    EbonyJet: Praise Song: The Morning After


  3. It's always wise to remember that most inaugural poems are occasional pieces, and almost never great poems. Frost's poem for Kennedy was no jewel, either. The whole panoply of occasional poems for political events has always been less than great. It's the nature of the beast and the occasion.

    Amidst all the criticism, some of which is valid purely on lit-crit terms but most of which is missing the point in terms of the why and wherefore of the inaugural poem itself, it might be wise to remember the historic occasion of which this was but one tiny part.

    But then, trust it to poets to create a furor over what everyone else realizes just isn't very important. I can't it very seriously. The really important things about his new President are so much more important than how bad this poem was. . . .