Contemporary Poetry Review

Jack Foley

  Inauguration Humiliation

An Open Letter to Elizabeth Alexander


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Dear Ms. Alexander,

I have long considered whether to write this note about your inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”

 It may well be better to let the matter (and the poem) be forgotten, as I believe they will be. Or if remembered, remembered only as still another dull poem written for still another presidential inauguration. I wondered whether you showed the poem to anyone before you decided it was “finished.” Surely a clumsy line like “We need to find a place where we are safe; we walk into that which we cannot yet see” might have been improved. From a purely musical point of view, didn’t you have difficulty saying “we walk into that which we cannot yet see?”

Nobody sets out to write a bad poem, yet, unfortunately, many bad poems have been achieved. Just about any poet of any distinction is guilty of writing badly at times. And I realize that you’ve written far better poems than the one you displayed for the entire nation to see.

But that is what is depressing about it.

Here was an opportunity to show millions of people—millions of people—what an exciting thing poetry is. Look at what you gave them. Look at what you gave all those people who think poetry is dull, genteel, a form of little interest—a dead thing. You gave great affirmation to their opinion; without meaning to, and I’m sure with the best of intentions, you drove still another nail into the coffin of poetry.

I'm sorry to be writing this because I think you are basically a good poet. But now a bad, banal, rhetorically dull poem will be presented to the American people as an example of the high reaches of the art. What a shame.


Jack Foley


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