The Inaugural Problem
On Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day"
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It is always
risky for a poet to accept the commission of an inaugural poem; it is
especially risky for a reputable poet who is well established in the
poetic community. Set against the symbolic eloquence of Barack Obama
taking the oath of office with his hand on the Lincoln Bible, even the
most capable of our nation’s poets would have been hard pressed to find
language equal to the occasion. The sublimity of such a profound moment,
the significance of which we have yet to comprehend fully, perhaps found
its most articulate expression in the weeping throngs who had gathered on
the Mall to witness what was impossible only a generation ago. Sometimes
the beauty of the ineffable should stand alone as its own poem.
being said, Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” fell so
far short of the mark that I fear her reputation will never recover.
Fragmented, overly colloquial, and clichéd, Ms. Alexander’s poem is
already in the blogosphere the victim of stinging parody, most often
punctuated with copious ellipses meant to mimic her halting and uninspired
delivery. A frequent subtext of the parodies is a scornful deprecation of
the academy: “If this is the best Yale has to offer, then what must
poetry be like at institutions with lesser reputations?”
of the reason for such vehement reaction against Ms. Alexander’s poem is
undoubtedly the consequence of a general taste that has not yet caught up
with, and thus remains unfamiliar with, the innovations of contemporary
poetry. For a general population that cut its grade-school teeth on Robert
Frost, Ms. Alexander’s Praise Song, a traditional West-African form, is
hardly recognizable as poetry. Poetry, after all, should be composed in
rhythm—if not in strict meters, most believe, then at least in a way
that differentiates it from common speech or from prose. An occasional
rhyme or two thrown in for good measure might help one remember the poem.
A coherent argument might also be helpful. Poetry, so the cliché goes,
should teach us something about the human condition.
Despite the critical deficiencies of the American public (it would be difficult, for example, to find 200 in a crowd of 2,000,000 who could name five contemporary poets), in this case, the aesthetic instincts of America are exactly right. Ms. Alexander’s poem is a bad poem, not only because it lacks the sophisticated rhythm of its traditional form (even though the poem employs tercets in alternating ten and eleven syllable lines), but because it lacks the dignity and propriety appropriate for the occasion. Consider, for example, the poem’s opening lines:
day we go about our business,
past each other, catching each other’s
or not, about to speak or speaking.
about us is noise. All about us is
and bramble, thorn and din, each
of our ancestors on our tongues.
the poem’s language goes “about its business” in such pedestrian
phrases that the ceremonial gravitas required for ennobling commemoration
remains almost completely absent. This is not to say that colloquial
language is bad, per se. Indeed, since William Carlos Williams made a
self-conscious decision to depart from high modernist obscurity by writing
in the “American Grain,” contemporary poets who have imitated Williams
have done much to wrest poetry from the educated elite and, in a
heightened spirit of egalitarianism, return it to the masses.
problem with “Praise Song for the Day” is that Ms. Alexander’s
fervent propensity for egalitarianism, in itself a virtuous trait, has
ironically blinded her to the fact that sometimes colloquial language can
divide rather than bind us. For a country that has been yearning for its
politicians to elevate their language, and for a nation that expected this
august state occasion to be commemorated by an appropriate rhetorical
form, many in the crowd could not help but feel overwhelmingly
disappointed by Ms. Alexander’s efforts. As every Yale freshman learns,
different rhetorical exigencies require different rhetorical strategies.
Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem came off as the equivalent of
someone reciting a limerick as a funeral oration.
To compound matters, “Praise Song for the Day” unintentionally trivialized the major themes of President Obama’s inaugural speech. Immediately after the President extolled the nation to work together in a spirit of shared self-sacrifice to repair the nation, Ms. Alexander offered us the following lines:
is stitching up a hem, darning
hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
the things in need of repair.
one can appreciate the idea that those of us who are struggling should
never be forgotten or the fact that all national reparation must start at
a grass-roots level, I doubt this is the kind of sacrifice our first
African-American President had in mind. With the catastrophes of Iraq, New
Orleans, Guantanamo, Enron, and Lehman Brothers still inflicting sorrow
upon our collective consciousness, it is hardly appropriate for one to
ignore those calamities while lauding the repair of a flat tire. It is
even worse for one to record the African-American struggle by resorting to
stock clichés. Despite Ms. Alexander’s attempt to elevate her language
as she spoke of her heritage, her trifling nod to the “cotton picker”
or “rail driver” did little to capture the magnitude of that struggle
or to evoke even the slightest pathos.
what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most
celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize)
seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry
from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant.
With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential
to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often
iterated, “old ways to be new.” Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem,
so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to
celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American
imagination—as President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech,
only moments earlier.