Posted by: beansai | January 20, 2009

Inaugural Poem

     I feel compelled as a poet to tackle the quality of writing and performance of the Inaugural poem given today by Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day” (the link will take you to a comments section which has the text of the poem posted a few comments down). If you have the chance to read the poem (or hear its oration) prior to reading this post, go for it, it can’t hurt – well, not a lot at least.

     My initial exposure to this poem was strictly the transcript. I read through the poem fairly quickly and found it generally unremarkable. When I returned later and read through the poem again and began picking apart the details of it, I find that Alexander’s language is generally uninventive, redundant, and occasionally bordering on archaic:
          “Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform,
          Patching a tire.”
These lines are an example of what I find as borderline archaic in the language, between the stitching and darning – there is just something bland and lifeless about this expression that reminds me of a “When I was your age” speech from my great grandparents. Followed closely behind that is the line, “Repairing the things in need of repair.” My response: Really? Imagine that. I mean what else would possibly need repairing? How about some detail here, how about something more specific. Oh sure, she preceded that statement with the darning of a hole and patching a tire, but these things are so pedestrian and mundane that there is no life to them. That’s the beauty of poetry though, the poet has the artistic license to take language and make those mundane moments, those little facts of living that keep us going and make them INTERESTING!!! It is absolutely possible. If I can do it, surely a published poet can as well? That is what I expect from a poet that has been chosen to read for the inauguration of the next president!!!

     Between the old and the boring language of the poem is the vague: “Someone is trying to make music somewhere.” All I can think of is what kind of music? what someone (or rather who)? where? I understand that Alexander is working within the confines of making accessible poetry, considering that she has an audience that may not consist strictly of poets and readers of poetry, but that does not mean dumb down the poetry and make it so common that it loses meaning. It is the details that allow poetry to be relatable and moving. If you turn the subjects into someones and everyones then NO ONE is going to want to read about them or hear about them. We like to think that we are all unique, yet connected by similar experiences and emotions, which means we want to read characters in the same light. The problem with the someones and somewheres is that they feel nothing and ground us nowhere. In a poem it is better to be specific and let the audience know where they are, whether it is by a street name, city name, a certain smell in the air. This poem has no atmosphere.

     Another problem I have with the poem is the representation of the working classes:
          “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.”
I get the whole “Yay for the working man (and woman)” and “They’re the backbone of our country” but I think it is a bit much for this poem to be so exclusively blue-collar (and by the way, I thought the whole “Joe the Plumber” was a McCain/Palin bit?). My dad is a civil engineer, worked his way through college for six years and works primarily in the office, designing rail runner systems and such, but he doesn’t lay the tracks down himself. Does that make his life and his work less praise worthy because he isn’t the laborer? I’m all for finally giving the working man his dues and recognizing how important he is to the infrastructure of our country, but that doesn’t mean exclude the other end. I thought our goal was equality, or is that just my mistake?

     I feel like Alexander’s repetition of the phrase “Praise song” diluted the impact of the title and the meaning she was trying to get across by naming the poem “Praise Song for the Day.” She uses that phrase four times in a very short space at the end of the poem, so by the time you get to that last line of the poem it does not have the impact or strength that it should. Instead it is simply another phrase of praise. And neither am I sold on the idea that this poem is about praise and celebration. It feels colorless and emotionless. There is no poignancy in the language or the depiction of images she gives us in the poem. It’s just plain and drab and I’m bored reading it. I find this unacceptable. I had a conversation with one of my poetry professors today about this poem and how poetry is allotted so little time in extensive exposure to a larger public. What this means is that the moments where poetry has access to a large audience we need to rock their socks off! This poem did no rocking…except to sleep. I am embarrassed as a poet that this is the impression of poetry so many people are going to be exposed to, that this poem is now unfortunately representative of poetry today when there are so many more poets and poems that exude passion and feeling, that have a knack for refreshing language and taking what we already know and making it new again. I consider this a sad day for poetry. Harsh, I know, but I feel strongly about this.

     Elizabeth Alexander also has a tendency to lean on lists in her poetry. Lists can be extremely informative and effective in poetry, but they also have a natural choppiness in their rhythm, which means if they are over-used you will get that disjointed feeling in the reading of the poem, because you just move from one list to the next. Which segues my comments on to the actual reading of the poem. If I was distraught at the text of this poem, I was near sick when I heard Alexander’s oration of the poem. This was my first impression of her performance: Is this the first time she’s read her poem out loud? Because that’s what it sounds like. I was appalled by the lack of enthusiasm in her voice. Her reading was disjointed and choppy as though she was continually looking down at the page (and continually losing her spot at that). I am being intentionally pitiless because poetry is a form of performance. Standing in front of audiences to give readings of your work comes with the territory of a poet. Which means that a poet has to be prepared to play their part, to read the poem with authority, to convince the audience not only that you wrote the poem, but that you really are the “I” of the poem, or the “dad” in the poem is your real dad. I don’t mean to exaggerate everything, but subtle inflections in the voice, an emphasis here, another there, intuitively draws the audience’s focus in on certain points. Reading a poem you wrote out loud is the opportunity for the poet to say “Hey, this is what it’s supposed to sound like, how it’s supposed to be read.” Alexander’s reading of her poem was as lifeless and colorless as the language she uses in the poem. It made me cringe.

     While I have very strong feelings about this poem and Elizabeth Alexander’s performance of it, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. So I decided to look and see if I could find any of her work posted online, which led me to this site where there are about twenty or so poems from various books of Alexander’s. I read more than half of the poems available and found that they generally are in a similar style to the inauguration poem, but with a bit more freedom in the content and language of the poem. Even with the freedom to use words like genitalia and tit and poop, Alexander’s poems are stiff and choppy. I read a comment online today about the poem saying that the lack of any kind of rhyme robbed the poem of any lyricism, which resulted in a disjointed, choppy rhythm to the poem and the reading. While I agree that the poem had no lyricism to it (and I found that the majority of her other poems didn’t either) I was slightly offended that they attributed this lack strictly to rhyme. There are so many ways to create a lyrical quality to a poem aside from strict rhyming patterns. There are the choice in line breaks, the words you choose and the sounds of both the consonants and the vowels, the way repetition can be used, internal rhyme… so many ways. No, the lack of flow in this poem cannot be blamed solely on the absence of rhyme. But I digressed, my apologies. While on the whole I would not recommend Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry, there were a couple of poems where I thought she pushed beyond the stiffness of her other poems:
          ”At the Beach” from Body of Life,
          ”Neonatology” from Antebellum Dream Book and
          ”Emancipation” from American Sublime
While I appreciated some aspects of these three poems, even in them I was not entirely satisfied with the poet’s work. Frankly, I think there are plenty of other poets that would have fulfilled this inaugural post much better; even Natasha Trethewey would have been a better choice.

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Responses

  1. Wow, very thorough run down of Alexander’s poem! As a complete amateur of poetry I find this is definitely true in most cases. During advanced English courses in high school, most poems that get attention are more sing-song rhyme-ish and generally stiff and boring. The world of poetry was never really open to me until I have read your work and the pieces of others as Lit Bit prescribes them. I am extremely grateful you didn’t pull any stops critiquing “Praise Song for the Day” as this day was indeed something that will forever be etched into history. It deserved much better.

    And with that, here’s four years to a rebuilt US and hopefully four more after that!

  2. Thank you, Lit Bit, for providing the best critique of “Praise Song for the Day” that I have read so far. I too feel Elizabeth Alexander’s poem has many deficiencies. It starts out by describing us as ‘going about our business’ (a homely, inexact phrase), ‘catching each others eyes (or not)’ (why mention such an arbitrary point?), and ‘about to speak, or speaking’ (How about a third choice: aren’t some of us silent?) Later, the poet gives us this ungrammatical, confused verse: “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.” I think the final cringe point for me comes with, “What if the mightiest word is Love? Love beyond marital, filial, national.” This is a hackneyed and awkwardly expressed sentiment. Oh well, I have admired Alexander in the past, and have heard her speak in a fluent way, not in the halting, jabbing tones with which she delivered “Praise Song”.

  3. I so agree with everything you said here. Great critique. This should be published in the NY Times. Really.

    btw, how are you?

  4. @jill – Thank you! I’m really excited that my critique is getting such positive responses. 😀

    I’m doing well. Just moved to Albuquerque – today in fact. Gonna finish up applying to Grad schools and then sit and wait for their replies… I’m hoping they all say ACCEPTED! I’m dreaming big. 🙂


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