praise the poem? or inaugural doggerel? one reader’s guide

So, finally we can read Elizabeth Alexander’s famous inagural poem: the NYT has posted it here. I’m weighing in a bit late: Erica Wagner covered it in the Times tout de suite, and Carol Rumens in the Guardian blogs ditto.

I couldn’t find a reliable transcript of the poem yesterday though; and today I was away from the keyboard.

I will confess that I didn’t really follow the poem when Alexander was reading it on Tuesday. Her delivery is nowhere near strong enough to withstand being put on right after the greatest orator of the past fifty years: she has the “poetry voice,” combined with a strange lack of insistence in her tone – a sort of soft, conventional don’t-mind-me that – in fact – stood out a mile after Obama’s musical conviction.  I clocked all this in about four seconds – “Each day we go about our business/ walking past each other/, catching each other’s/ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking” – and the automatic switch-off kicked in, I’m afraid.

Even if the reader is excellent and compelling I get little of worth out of a reading unless I can follow a text. And, as I’ve just said, we were so far from having a text to follow that I had to wait till right now to get hold of it.


What I did hear, though, sounded also as if the lineation was confused: you couldn’t hear any. Well, this is something that troubles me at any time, and especially at a time like this. Why have lines if you are going to ignore them? The poetic line is such an undersung – sorry – structure these days. But it is very much, just the same, a respectable, discrete structure, a unit of great integrity, a thing of great intact beauty when constructed properly. You don’t do this to it:

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need

I guess I was hoping for too much from the Obama phenomenon.

Well, but all I had to go on was her delivery and the fact that I have poetry voice deafness. But those four opening lines seem utterly prosaic.  They go right against Mr Plain Speaking Ezra Pound’s dictum not to “retell in mediocre poetry what has already been done in good prose” – made into prose, they lie there inert. Well – they lie there and remind me of Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood.

Here are the second two stanzas:

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.

Mr Rogers, who always sought to bring people together, is still hard at work here, but with other overtones thrown in. I do think this trope works, and the sort of wide-angle imagery is nice too. I take it that one of Alexander’s inspirations here was a certain old slave song, whose singers spoke a Creole dialect in which they implored the Lord to “come by here.” We all grew up singing this song. And if it wasn’t her inspiration, it still was – underneath. You know how it goes, right: “Someone’s singing, my Lord… someone’s singing, my Lord…” etc. Then: “Someone’s (e.g.) praying, my Lord…” etc. Ad infinitum until you have exhausted the list of humanly actionable verbs of two syllables. It’s a gentle, pretty, sad song. The words don’t carry all the power, which is quite right, as it’s a song. Here, the words must carry all the power, and unfortunately the masterclass in making ordinary words carry a huge power charge was given in the minutes before she read this poem out.

“Trying [sic] to make music somewhere” seems spectacularly inexact, by the way, when you read the list of what with: including a cello, a harmonica, a voice. It strikes me that those guys must be actually making music.

I know a little bit about praise poems, only a little bit, because of my poetry friend Chris Beckett who grew up in Ethiopia and writes infectiously charming praise poems himself. His seem to be more enthusiastic. They list colourful details and have sound effects. He says that within the capacious form they can even be poems of exasperation or complaint, but the main things his always have are detail, energy and enthusiasm. What we seem to have here is a sort of plain, hit-or-miss listiness. Some of the items in the lists are nice.

The poem has a sort of turn: at the start of stanza 9 she suddenly switches focus and says: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.” What day? We all know it, of course. But where is it, in the poem? Why? There should be some clue in the strcture, the fabric of the piece – otherwise the poem really is “occasional” and doesn’t hold water. (“Thre’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…”) (I’m not very impressed either with the line, two lines before, that goes: “We need to find a place where we are safe.” Thank God I’d switched off by that point.)

From this turn it becomes a “praise poem for…”, with the listy normal-day activities sort of going away. Instead we get the list of ancestors (and get this – ending an entire stanza on a preposition!):

…the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built [line alert] [couldn’t do that with an edifice]
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

And then we move into the abstract nouns and vague”sharp sparkle, this winter air” of the last few stanzas, and then we get the thing I just can’t stand, no matter who does it: the single line all by itself at the end, looking like it’s supposed to pack the humdinger punch the poet clearly doesn’t trust the rest of the poem  to have packed.

Well, I could go on. I won’t – though why would words be “spiny or smooth”? I mean, why would that be the characterisation of any given set of words, in the absence of any elaboration? But it seems churlish to be churlish. The poet did her best. It is a different aesthetic, for one thing: I’ve never been into “plainness for plainness’ sake” (sure sign of a decadent society), which is also shorthand for “inclusiveness” – you can’t help wondering if the main criterion was for no one to be intimidated. There’s a certain element of wondering if the poem was written in fear of the brief – which august document one of my commenters so wisely mentions below – and, takig off from that, whether it may have been to any extent killed by committee.

Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader writes: “Alexander wrote a modest, gentle poem that understands the occasion it was written for but doesn’t dress up for it.” I think that’s a good description as far as it goes – but I think the poem’s also done its up its linsey-wolsey buttons wrong. We are above all talking of a poem written for a huge occasion, and to that extent saying “she was brave for trying” just does poetry a disservice. Miner  makes the points I’ve made (though I understand that technically he made them first) that we should have been able to read the poem beforehand – the speech, after all, was disseminated a bit, wasn’t it? So we, and the poem, weren’t given the support we needed there. And that the poor woman should not have been made to follow Obama! and to come right before a prominent Civil Rights preacher! That was just pointless event organising.

I’m just as nobody as anyone else is, so I can hardly puff myself out and say, “we-ell…  if I’d-a been doin’ it…” And you just don’t envy her the gig, even if one had been up to the level of notice required. You couldn’t have paid me to do it. Well, okay – you could have paid me. But I’d have been sat in that Star*ucks with Jon Favreau, cribbing the oratory. “Better angels” is a nice phrase… There are even individual words you could pinch (well – like Favreau & Obama did), and do something with. I’d have tried to give ’em a couple of bars they could hum. And I’d have practiced a good solid resounding delivery you could hit with a wooden spoon.

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