The Inaugural Problem

On Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”
As Reviewed By: Robert Bernard Hass

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. [private]

That 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?”

Part 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:

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
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.

Here 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.

The 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:

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

While 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.

Perhaps 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. [/private]

About Robert Bernard Hass

Robert Bernard Hass is the author of Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science (University of Virginia Press, 2002), which was selected by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Title in 2004. He is also the author of the poetry collection, Counting Thunder (David Robert Books, 2008). His poems and articles on modern and Victorian literature have appeared in many leading journals, including Poetry, Sewanee Review, Agni, Studies in English Literature and the Journal of Modern Literature. He has won an Academy of American Poets Prize, an Associated Writing Programs Intro Journals Award, and a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He serves on the editorial boards of Twentieth-Century Literature and the Robert Frost Review. He is currently Professor of English and Theatre Arts at Edinboro University, where he was named “Educator of the Year” in 2008.
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