Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Poem by Elizabeth Alexander

Praise song for the day.

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.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone 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 thy self."

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 preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.


Anonymous said...

Just watching as it was delivered, I was less than impressed.

I though she was clearly upstaged by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a stalwart
of the civil rights movement, who delivered the benediction. ..

Was it the poem or the delivery?

Reading the text on the blog, maybe both. It seemed like a perfectly acceptable poem one would read in POETRY or The New Yorker or any dozen literary magazines - clever, safe, and forgettable.

I'm afraid poetry did not win many converts today...

gertrude butterworth said...

The poem is so lame and cringeworthy on many
levels. I cannot believe this woman is a college
professor at Yale. It is too bad, she is allowed to
pass critical judgement on students.

pottygok said...

I was afraid of posting, thinking I was the only one who felt this way. I'm glad others saw the same things I did.

This is not poetry. Too many of the "lines" were vague and abstract, and too many of the images were buried in, as the anonymous commenter correctly wrote, "forgettable" words.

I'm not sure what upsets me the most--that people out there think that this is what poetry is, or should be, or that now, thanks to Elizabeth Alexander, people will now expect this sort of mediocrity from poetry, and not read or accept poetry that forces them to delve deeper into themselves. Either way, this was an embarrasing moment for poetry.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not that Alexander's poem "isn't poetry." The problem is that it IS poetry, as it has come to be practiced in the 20th century--and into the 21st.

pottygok said...

I disagree. There is great poetry being written, and published, both in academic and non-academic journals alike. This just isn't it.

I'm sorry, but give me Tim Seibles on Obama. I want a throbbing, vatic voice reading a poem that will shake this country to its knees.

Anonymous said...

This should concern us all much more. The fact that Jon Stewart pretty much dismisses poetry in this little segment from last night's show.


A fine setback for poetry in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Scratch that. Correct URL below:


Pressin On said...

i watched that clip just now. i do think jon was making fun of Elizabeth Alexander, more than mocking poetry at large. he makes a good point..the reverend to follow in a Hughesian manner upstaged the Yale prof. maybe the religion mixed in was the passion lacking in the poem. in a sense, the reverend delivered a 'poem'.

Anonymous said...

He was definitely making fun of Alexander, no doubt about it. And Maya Angelou earlier in the clip. But twice he says he's not a big fan of poetry, so the the jabs sting that much more.

But I think you're right. The Rev. certainly upstaged the poet. Kind of Smith-like, in my opinion. Made Obama laugh!

Anonymous said...

yes...so unfortunate. A live audience of 2 million and how many millions watching around the world--and opportunity that probably no other poet will have--and she put people to sleep...

Anonymous said...

Lizzy Boredom?...

pottygok said...

Check this article out. It actually looks at the form she was attempting:


pottygok said...

BTW, I e-mailed Elizabeth Alexander (using the e-mail on her website) inviting her to respond to this post and the next one on the blog. Maybe we'll get a response?

michael salinger said...

Ms. Alexander was on the Colbert Report last night where she represented poetry in a bit better fashion.

She also explains her interpretation of the praise song format a bit.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that link, Michael. I saw that last night too and I'd say she did a good job explaining the poem. I even went back and read the poem myself and liked it better than I initially did. I think her delivery is was fouled it up.

Shelley Chernin said...

It reads better for me with line breaks.


pottygok said...

In the interview, says "What you want to do is mark the occasion, but write words that will last afterwards and be useful afterwards in some kind of way." I'm still trying to figure out, in what way, these lines are useful, either for the occasion or beyond it. She may claim that the poem isn't about Barack Obama, who needs no gilding, but about us, but I'm struggling to find any connection to the banal images and cliches that she's littered her poems with.

Now, to be fair, there are some decent ideas in this piece that could be carried forward:

"each one of our ancestors on our tongues" is a fairly resonant idea, especially for a historic inauguration. However, it is too buried in trite descriptions and abstraction to be of any use to anyone.

Anonymous said...

I had no issues with the poem itself, but was terribly disappointed in her delivery...


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau