POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY

POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY
Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley

POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY web page

Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.


Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Poem by Elizabeth Alexander





Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here . . .



Just as citizens across the nation eagerly anticipated Barack Obama’s inaugural address, most viewing with high expectations, many among literary circles also were looking forward to the poem written by Elizabeth Alexander especially for the occasion. Indeed, for various reasons, most poets and readers of poetry shared a sense of exhilaration that the inaugural event would again feature a poem to help celebrate this historic moment. As has been noted in numerous news reports, Alexander would be only the fourth person commissioned to write an inaugural poem and designated to deliver it as part of the national ceremony. Previously, Robert Frost had received the honor when invited by John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton had chosen both Maya Angelou and Miller Williams for the assignment.

Of course, selection for such a position presents the poet with an enormous amount of personal attention and beneficial promotion for his or her poetry, as well as an intense level of scrutiny, most closely focused upon the quality of the work submitted. Certainly, any search of newspaper columns, magazine articles, and blog entries in the past month would verify Elizabeth Alexander has achieved a widespread public recognition she never enjoyed while merely a highly praised contemporary poet, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and professor of literature at a prestigious academic institution like Yale. A multitude of stories in recent weeks chronicled Alexander’s biographical details and discussed the daunting task she confronted as Barack Obama’s inaugural poet.

On Tuesday Elizabeth Alexander presented her work, “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” All of us who have loved poetry, and appreciated this bright spotlight for the art form, held our breaths anxiously as we watched and listened. For many of us who have admired Alexander’s poetry in the past, we possessed great hope for the poet, perhaps just as most Americans who had heard Barack Obama’s eloquent speeches the past few years harbored substantial expectations for the new president’s address.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the poet’s presentation, much of the reception among her fellow poets could be described as mixed at best, and some openly expressed disappointment. Surely, a few voiced approval and acclaim for the poem Alexander had written; however, in online writers’ lists, in blogs, and in newspaper columns a majority of those responding reacted with less favorable opinions.

David L. Ulin remarked in the Los Angeles Times that “‘Praise Song for the Day’ didn’t measure up” because its “prosaic language” and rhetoric “simply didn’t sing.” Writing for The New Republic, Adam Kirsch considered Alexander’s poem an example of “bureaucratic verse,” lost in clichés and driven by an agenda: “The poem's argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity.” At Times Online Erica Wagner offered a critique of the poem as “unmemorable,” and she suggested: “Professor Alexander, alas, sounded merely repetitious, or at the very least, confused.”

This sentiment was seconded by the About.Com: Poetry blog hosted by Bob Holman and Margery Snyder: “I see that there are indeed some memorable phrases, but I confess that while I was hearing the poem, I felt it was all over the place, not well put together at all, not focused . . . .” Jeff Charis-Carlson wrote at the Poetry & Popular Culture blog: “even I lost interest as Alexander read her poem. I can appreciate the difficulty that she was under—the occasional poem is a hard form for literary poets to master—but I found nothing sonorous and very little memorable about the reading.” On the other hand, at the Kenyon Review blog Kirsten Ogden supplied support for Alexander’s endeavor: “I listened today with great pleasure as Elizabeth Alexander read her poem ‘Praise Song for the Day’ at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. What a joy it was to hear ‘We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.’”

Indeed, I’d prefer to associate my response to Elizabeth Alexander’s poem with the sentiments expressed by Kirsten Ogden; nevertheless, my general reaction more closely resembles those expressions offered by the majority who wrote with disappointment. However, I do not make this statement necessarily as a criticism of Alexander. Instead, I believe she had accepted an almost impossible chore and fell victim to the difficulty of such a monumental situation, particularly in her unenviable spot on the program directly following the renowned eloquence of Barack Obama and while many of the cold folks in the audience on this frigid January day already were starting to wander toward exits from the mall. (In fact, despite the apparent effectiveness of Obama’s address, a number of political commentators mentioned in their reviews of the new president’s speech that, perhaps due to a conscious focus on its purposes as an inaugural message, it didn’t quite measure up to the lofty language and inspiring reaches listeners were accustomed to experiencing in his previous speeches.)

As Jim Fisher has written at Salon: “let's dispense with this idea that poets can produce lasting poems for public events. It's unfair to the audience, discomposes the poet, and probably confirms the low opinion of poetry some listeners already hold.” The three previous poets to offer inaugural poems have been victimized in a similar fashion. The pair who read at Bill Clinton’s two inaugurals presented poems that were targeted to the political times or social circumstances in which they were delivered, and neither piece succeeded in giving its audience exemplary poetry. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” and Miller Williams’s “Of History and Hope” left listeners with lines that seemed more superficial than substantive.

Robert Frost was victimized by the actual environmental elements in the immense and very public situation. An aged man already in his late 80s at the time, Frost had difficulty reading the poem he’d written for the inauguration of John Kennedy because of the bright sun’s glare on his wind-blown pages. Consequently, the poet resorted to reciting a favorite old poem he’d memorized perfectly and performed for nearly two decades, “The Gift Outright,” a much stronger work than the less effective official poem he’d been commissioned to produce. As a result, Frost offered a memorable moment praised by both the general population of viewers in attendance or watching on television and revered by lovers of good poetry. In Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, William H. Pritchard suggests that the substitute poem “had more of ‘life’ in it: in the midst of flattery and display, the sound of sense suddenly and movingly made itself felt.”

In this instance I believe we may learn a lesson. A place exists in public ceremonies for poetry. However, rather than commission a poet to write an occasional poem for the political proceedings, organizers should request a quality poem inspired independent of the moment, yet one that reflects the substance or spirit of the day and has passed the test of time. After all, some of the finest advice beginning poets often receive in creative writing courses concerns an avoidance of writing toward a predetermined goal or abstract notion. Pieces written under such conditions by young poets, or even experienced poets, usually feel forced, display didacticism, or demonstrate a graceless tendency toward prosaic statement rather than lyricism and imagery. As Robert Frost once wrote about the process of composition for a poet: “Writing a poem is discovering.”

Still, Elizabeth Alexander deserves commendation for her courage as she literally placed herself and her poetry in front of the nation for critical examination. Her poem contains a few very compelling lines and some emphatic phrases, especially at its admirable center: “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.” Indeed, the impressive opening pair of lines in that quote could have sufficed for many.

For those who have not yet seen the poem by Elizabeth Alexander with its breaks in lines or stanzas and who wish to evaluate it as a written work rather than a performed piece:


PRAISE SONG FOR THE DAY: A POEM FOR BARACK OBAMA’S PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION


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.

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.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one 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.

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.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.


—Elizabeth Alexander


72 comments:

Tad Richards said...

Edward -- thanks for this, as always. I'd written a brief response on my blog, will link to yours.

Bruce Oksol said...

Thank you for posting.

The inaugural poem certainly did "say it plain."

I'm not sure it met the traditional "definition" of a poem. If Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" is a prose poem, Elizabeth's Alexander's Inaugural Poem seems to be prose in blank/free form verse.

But the poet knew her audience (fortunately) and she hit a bull's eye.

As a poetry novice (my background is science and math and I am only now beginning to tackle poetry), I truly appreciate your comments regarding Ms Alexander's poem, and I love your blog (it is the only blog devoted to poetry that I check daily).

Anonymous said...

Ignorant as I may be on the subject if poetry, in my bold opinion a frigid crowd was not the thorn in this poet's prose.

The delivery, though appropriate for an ESL class, only added to my distaste for the random combination of vacuous sentences.

Were it only the reason why I yelped in agony. The words, oh the words, placed out of order no less painful than a beginner on a string instrument.

Maybe I will get it some day, or not. Oh, there is the teacher, I better get my pencil and begin.

H. Palmer Hall said...

Ed,
I agree that the poem did not soar, did not meet expectations. And suppose, as many people do, that that the "occasion" is actually the problem.
An inauguration almost demands a monumental poem with the kind of elevated use of language that the beginning of the twenty-first century has little tolerance for. And not just the twenty-first. Maya Angelou's poem was monumental, filled with high purpose and elegant language (an incredible attempt!)...and yet, ultimately, I think it failed as a poem BECAUSE of its purpose.
I have heard that Obama is planning to have a few poetry readings in the White House. If so, that will do more for poetry than having a poet speak at the inauguration of any president can do.

--Palmer

Anonymous said...

I couldn't tell if Ms. Alexander wrote this piece using one of those refrigerator magnet sets, or if she dashed it off at a drunken poetry slam, or maybe she just asked Sarah Palin to put some "finishing touches" on it for her, and didn't have time to double-check before she started to read it.

Admittedly, I am no massively-published, well-connected Yale professor. However, as a humble high school speech coach and judge, I can tell you that any high school student who wrote and performed that piece exactly as she did would have earned nothing higher than a II rating - at the district level (assuming a kind-hearted judge).

I'm sorry - I may be mincing words.

I didn't care for the inaugural poem. In my unimportant opinion, it was poorly read, bizarrely disjointed, and felt like a humorless spoof on the work of Maya Angelou.

Suggesting that she was somehow "courageous" to stand at the podium and read work she herself wrote is a little patronizing.

Nobody held a gun to her head and forced her onto that stage. It was a huge honor for which many writers would gladly give any body part required. How frustrating for them to watch her fritter away the opportunity through what seemed like a simple lack of preparation or rehearsal.

Maybe Obama called her the night before and said, "Hey, Liz! I have this little ceremony-thing tomorrow and thought it would be a scream to have you give one of your random-word fake out monologues that make the uber-intellectuals all quiver with inferred meaning! Are you in?"

If that is the case, then I guess it didn't totally stink. In fact, that would actually be kind of funny.

John DeStefano said...

I think Ms. Alexander was indeed faced with a daunting task, and expectations were great, as this tradition had laid dormant during the years of the "W". I admit also that there are images within the poem that I did not well perceive during its reading, and whose meaning I will never be able to comprehend and appreciate. That said, I am sorry to say that I think your excellent post on the matter, and some of the comments that it has provoked, seem to have been better thought-out and more thought-provoking than the "work" we heard read yesterday, notwithstanding its passionless presentation.

Edward Byrne said...

As everyone is aware from the various news articles and from the comments here, reactions to the inaugural poem for Barack Obama by Elizabeth Alexander have been mixed, even sometimes passionate.

However, the interest received by the poem has been remarkable to witness. No matter what one's opinion may be of this individual poem, we can all thank Alexander and Obama for reinvigorating discussion or debate about poetry and its place in public ceremony.

Janis Lull said...

" . . . Rather than commission a poet to write an occasional poem for the political proceedings, organizers should request a quality poem inspired independent of the moment, yet one that reflects the substance or spirit of the day and has passed the test of time."

This is exactly right, and was, unfortunately for Ms. Alexander, proved almost the instant she stopped speaking when Rev. Lowery began to quote James Weldon Johnson. That was the poem for this particular day.

Donna Trussell said...

I must defer to the comic genius Jon Stewart: "How do you clear 2.5 million people off the Washington Mall?"

http://blog.indecision2008.com/2009/01/21/the-daily-show-the-inauguration-a-night-of-history-and-balls/

Kelly Cherry said...

There is a poet alive today and in this country who would have written a brilliant inaugural poem that would stand the test of time: Fred Chappell. He has written glorious public poetry in addition to a large body of other kinds of poems. And he could easily have done it on deadline.

Jana said...

I feel for Ms. Alexander, and I take no pleasure in tearing down anyone's public performance. But this poem simply wasn't up to its occasion. I agree that her task was, indeed, nearly impossible. I hope that her experience will stand as a warning to the next unfortunate who might be offered the same honor. But I don't understand how, even under these circumstances, Alexander could have uttered these lines: "We cross dirt roads and highways that mark / the will of some one and then others, who said / I need to see what’s on the other side." I the midst of a glorious inauguration ceremony, all I could think was, "Who invited the chicken?" At least she didn't say "Knock, knock."

John Guzlowski said...

Elisabeth Alexander did not trust her poem.

It was there and then she started adding on to it, padding it.

My old creative writing teacher (Paul Carroll) would have said, "the whole poem is in the last 6 three line stanzas." And I think he would have been right:

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.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.

Jo Anna said...

No one needs any formal qualification to know that the "poem" (if it can actually earn that name) stinks!

Jo Anna said...

Here's an idea..........next inauguration....just challenge schoolchildren to a poetry writing contest....."What America/change/leadership/freedom.......means to me ......or some similar theme. then allow the young winner to read his/her piece. A little more in line with all the bruhaha about hope and change etc.......

huxley said...

The stanza'd version (thanks, One Poet!) reads somewhat better, though I still don’t care for it much.

In addition to the poem’s general slackness and triteness, my problem is that I don’t hear myself--a white, conservative software engineer/poet--included among the “we” Alexander repeatedly invokes.

Why not? I’m an American too and the inauguration of an American President is surely a day for all Americans.

But not as Elizabeth Alexander would have it. This sounds very much like one black talking to other blacks about a “love beyond marital, filial, and national love.” Note that, regardless of what other boundaries it may transcend, this love is not beyond race. Furthermore, it is a “love with no need to pre-empt grievance.” Hmm…what love are we talking about here?

If Obama’s election is about becoming post-racial, could we -- all of us, blacks included -- move beyond race and start talking about that America which Obama says is not red or blue, liberal or conservative, or black or white? Or is that talk just a cover for the same-old, same-old, the “okey-doke” that Obama inveighed against some of the time when he was running for president?

Anonymous said...

I hear too many echoes of other poems in this. As I listened to her read the poem, I actually lost interest and stopped listening. When I started reading this poem today, I once again lost interest. It does not take me anywhere. I will print it out and take it into my literature class and see what my students can do with it. And finally, I do not like tercets for this poem. Couplets are harmony and tercets are conflict. I do not see any logic in using tercets for this poem.

Jeanie Thompson said...

Ed, thanks for providing the considered discussion and the complete poem for all of us to ponder on the page. How many of us poets with opinion could've stood up there and read a new poem, an occasional poem, after Barack Obama, and not just simply lost it? She gets kudos for that. But I agree with Kelly Cherry that there are poets prove to be better suited to the assignment. We have to face the fact that the Obama team, while glorious, is falliable when it comes to some choices. I trust that their choices regarding ending the war, closing Gitmo, fixing No Child Left Behind, etc. will be stronger. We all know how to write and throw a poetry festival! Let's don't beat this to death.

Jeanie Thompson said...

Ed, thanks for providing the considered discussion and the complete poem for all of us to ponder on the page. How many of us poets with opinions could've stood up there and read a new poem, an occasional poem, after Barack Obama, and not just simply lost it? She gets kudos for that. But I agree with Kelly Cherry that there are poets proven to be better suited to the assignment. We have to face the fact that the Obama team, while glorious, is falliable when it comes to some choices. I trust that their choices regarding ending the war, closing Gitmo, fixing No Child Left Behind, etc. will be stronger. We all know how to write and throw a poetry festival! Let's don't beat this to death.

John Guzlowski said...

Huxley above suggests that the poem "sounds very much like one black talking to other blacks."

I don't buy that. The references to building bridges, working with brick, etc don't have any race component. I'm a Polish immigrant born in a refugee camp after WWII, and I feel that she could be talking about me and my parents who worked in factories, built houses, farmed, swept up department story floors.

The only race element may be the reference to picking cotton, but I'm sure my dad (a white Polish guy) would have picked it and anything else he was asked to pick.

Mr. Huxley seems to be writing his own poem.

Donna Trussell said...

My two (not!) favorite lines:

"they would then keep clean and work inside of."

"the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables."

As for the ceremony, someone could have read a classic poem. It's not like we have a shortage.

Or they could have hired a rapper. I once heard a high-school student read an award-winning poem about her difficult life. The crowd went wild. And so did I.

huxley said...

JG -- Point taken...to an extent.

So let's refine my point to say that Alexander is making the usual leftist appeal to working class people, often of color. But do you hear references to knowledge workers, middle managers, or CEOs? Where do white conservatives fit into Alexander's scheme of things? I say they aren't there.

Furthermore, what is this love that is "beyond marital, filial, national love" but noticeably not beyond categories like race or class? And what exactly is this "love with no need to pre-empt grievance" in the final line of the climactic stanza of the poem?

It seems to me that Alexander is not saying it plain at all, but coded, yet clear enough that anyone who reads between the lines can hear the same old culture wars raging on a day when we were told we were going beyond them.

Joe the Novelist said...

The poem struck exactly the right tone for the occasion, matching precisely the man of the day. Understated, subtle, economical, confident, to the point, unsentimental and secular. It's by far the best inauguration poem yet. It's a great poem. Period.

Anonymous said...

Seriously? Being commissioned to write an occasional poem is too tough a task for a poet to handle? Throughout English literary history, brilliant, lasting, monumental poems have been composed at the request of patrons to mark specific occasions. Ever hear of John Donne's magnificent "Anatomy of the World"? Alexander simply lacked either the skill or the sinew to rise to this particular occasion.

huxley said...

Amen, Anon! Yes, writing a poem to mark an occasion has, until recently, been an unquestioned part of the poet's job description.

Today we have many fine open poems, and that's great, but current poets seem to believe that writing a particular poem for a specific purpose is somehow beneath them or a betrayal of their craft.

huxley said...

Strangely enough, I like Alexander's poem better than Angelou's inaugural poem for Clinton in 1992. Yet, as I remember it--perhaps inaccurately--there was much swooning and little criticism for Angelou's rambling piece.

So I am surprised to find so much criticism here and elsewhere on the web for Alexander. Is it a matter of stature? Angelou was a far more well-known and honored writer.

Anne said...

Thank you, and I agree. It lacked pith, wit and intelligence. A sad moment, perhaps the only sad moment on a glorious day. Anne

Michael Deqel said...

I agree with my old friend, Palmer, that the issue likely is the occasion. Matching poem to occasion at the time (actually, before in the writing). I recall similar controversy about Maya Angelou's poem, which Palmer mentions. Still, hearing the poem / a poem read, hearing a poem reaching for the moment (whether making it or not), and, as Ed points out, seeing the amount of reaction to poetry thrill me, each and every one of those things I just listed, but all together!

A poem need not be fancy language, and many, perhaps most, poems don't fully succeed. But language reached us, and is stirring the public. That, I do believe, is excellent.

Pris said...

Michael Parker referred me to your blog since I'd been looking for a written version of the poem. I was among those who were very disappointed in the poem. It 'read' like a speech. Granted there was a lot of pressure but that pressure called for a poem that soared when read, and we all know that some poems work better on the page and some cry out to fly on the spoken word.

This was a time to expose massive amounts of people to poetry. That was the biggie for me and the reason for my greater disappointment that this poem wasn't up to that job.

I'm widely published, by the way, have several chapbooks out and was just nominated for a Pushcart. Saying that only to indicate that I do have some poetry experience under my belt.

I'm adding you to my blogs to follow, btw. Good blog!

Anonymous said...

I loved the courage it took to deliver in front of the world..the words were fine..but the delivery was lifeless..more passion could have saved the day as memorable.

Bunnyslippers said...

The problem I have with this poem is not its theme, which is a fine subject for a poem, nor its plainness in contrast to the significance of the occasion, which I think was intentional and appropriate.

The problem I have is with the clumsy, bumpy, and overall impoverished way she chooses her words and assembles them into phrases and sentences, which is a skill necessary for good poetry.

We Americans are privileged to share a spectacularly rich and beautiful language where a handful of ordinary words can be strung together in ways that can make one laugh, cry, rage, or go silent. That poem made us go silent, but for the wrong reasons.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.


"Each day we go about our business." That's a verbose and aesthetically uninteresting way of saying, "We're all busy."

"Walking" is fine, but "past each other" stops me like a series of small ugly rocks. It just bumps along to an ignominious end. But then we hear it again in, "catching each other's eyes or not," "Each other" is an inherently bumpy phrase. Think about it. Say it. It's not even easy to say. And it serves no function in this poem, which could have said, "Each day we pass, meet eyes or don't, almost speak or do."

Also, her bland vagueness when she could have used crystal-sharp imagery was a lost opportunity:

repairing the things in need of repair. What "things"? A list of those things would have been more interesting and memorable: watches, shoes, cars, clothes--at least they would have been visual. And here, too, is more bumpiness that threatens to break my wagon wheel: repairing THE things [that vague word] IN NEED OF repair rather than "repairing what's broken."

Somone is trying to make music somewhere... If she can't get any more graphic than that, I can't be faulted for not finding inspiration in her own apparent boredom with the subject, especially when daily life is loaded with memorable images for the taking.

I could go on, but it's 3:44 a.m., so I'll give her a break. To sum up: it's not the lack of grandeur or the exclusion of certain groups that makes this poem painful to hear or read, it's the unskilled use of language. It fails to move us, or it stops us en route, in spite of our eager willingness to follow where she would have us go.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi Huxley, You're right -- in part. She doesn't talk about CEOs or knowledge workers.

She's talking -- I think -- about a past America where most people worked manual labor jobs or came from families where the money was made by hand work..

Is this leftist? I guess it depends on the kind of working people you've known. I've worked in factories and at manual labor and some of the people I've worked with were conservative and some were liberal--pretty much an even division. Were these people I worked with people of color? Some were, some weren't.

Again, I think you want to spin the poem so that it's thing it's not.

Anonymous said...

Clearly, there is a color line issue as to who has commented on the poem and what it has meant to them. This is fact and this is the problem we face today with regards to poetry. This post is not meant to be mean spirited but it must be brought up. Whether we want to admit it or not, the people that are posting here are not of the melanin skin. This should say something about what and how we feel. Of course, to most here there is no real divide in poetry. But we know if we look at the awards the recognition and the jobs, there is a divide. I would love to say that poetry is color blind, but it is not. Your personal opinion of them poem is just that, a personal opinion. But something does not seem right when everyone posting here is of one persuasion. I don't know how to balance the discussion in terms of who comments. Ultimately, your opinion is your opinion. If you like the poem, you liked, and if you didn't, well you didn't. I just think they is something in Gwen Brook's comments that when you got to Baskin and Robbins, you tell them what flavor our want. You just don't say ice-cream. It has a color, a flavor. I'm wondering how many people here have even read over 20 AF-Am full length poetry collections? How many even know the poem comes from an African tradition, not a European one? Don't think that everything is about a Western way of thinking. I don't know. Something just isn't right when we sit in an ivory tower that we think we are raging against.

Anonymous said...

the following is taken from the blog of Ethelbert Miller:

THE POEM:

Everyone has a comment on Elizabeth Alexander's poem today. Many have comments about her "performance" or lack of. I found everyone comparing her words to Whitman, Frost and Angelou. However, one name that was not mentioned was Gil Scott-Heron. First, Alexander's poem should be connected to the closing lines of Barack Obama's speech. Can we get a coda here?Obama quotes George Washington -and it seems like a Valley Forge moment. It's Winter in America. Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" echoes this:

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

Now let's bring in Gil and his deep voice, singing:

And now it's winter
Winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
It's winter
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
'Cause nobody knows what to say
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Winter in America

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Look like it's hoping
Hoping for some rain

We seem to be trapped in winter right now. It is cold outside.Alexander's poem is not a blueprint for the future. It isn't the visionary poem I was thinking she might write. Others will do this. I found Alexander doing what Obama did in his address. Alexander stands in front of us as mother and comforter. An ordinary woman in extraordinary times? This complements the humility expressed by Obama. For a moment Elizabeth Alexander is not a Yale professor she is a woman going about her daily work. She hears the music created by the people. If her words seem more prose than poetry, it's because she is saying it plain. This is a praise song in which the words of remembrance do the heavy lifting. Alexander's poem informs us to celebrate the moment in its Buddhist and sweet Christian dress. Incorporated are the basic teachings of all good people:

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

If we are to pursue King's dream then we must continue to believe in the Beloved Community.
Alexander reminds us of this. Yes the mightiest word is love. It seems to be Divine Love- for the poet yesterday told us to look beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light.

Maybe here is where Elizabeth Alexander becomes not Gwendolyn Brooks but Lucille Clifton. As I listened to Elizabeth recite her poem yesterday - I thought of the light that had come to my friend at this historical moment. I thought about how Aretha had the hat but Alexander had the poem.

And the poem guided us towards the light, and we were all moving forward - as one and as Americans.

In the Spring of our beginning - Anything can be made, any sentence begun.

Anonymous said...

There's a giant difference between the poem read in silence on the page and a poem meant to be read aloud, for an occasion, with the expectation of hitting certain points.

I don't think people are being unfair in saying that as performance, the reading was -- well -- pretty awful.

When I heard that Elizabeth Alexander was reading I was, like most of the audience, willing and ready to hear something great. (No, the cold had nothing to do with the reaction.)

I was amazed when I read the poem on your blog it appeared to be much better than when it was read.

Some poets voices are part of the problem ... note T.S. Eliot reading 'Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock.' Some fudge up their own cadences -- note Robert Frost sometimes when he'd read 'Mowing.'

But Alexander's was a much different problem. Perhaps it was nerves, a frozen mouth, etc. She read her poem in an unspirited manner -- with odd pauses between the phrasing, making it disjointed and giving it the impression that the images were unconnected and messy.

I left the room when the poem was read. It even felt awkward to watch and listen. I remember telling a friend, "It feels as if she's doing the deliberate pauses to make poetic -- what really sounds like prose."

But when you see the poem on the page, it appears very organized, and pretty. And it reads less like prose.

The first problem is that great poetry will hardly come from an inauguration. And this poem isn't great sounding or great language, however wonderful the sentiment.

I do understand the task is a difficult one. But poetic skill will never be fully appreciated by non-poets until writers get rid of the notion (as my friends put it) "that all that is read is good because the poet made the effort."

This isn't intramural youth soccer, where to play makes it all good and everybody's a winner. Honesty is required. Some poems are good. Some aren't. Some are good read aloud. Some aren't. Some poets read better. Some don't read well at all.

If we had no professional truth in criticism than Shakespeare would be considered no better or worse than Michael Crichton.

I still have all the respect in the world for what Ms. Alexander tried to do. It's difficult. And I know I would have fallen for fear before being able to even taken the podium. But overall, it was not a triumph. -- david d. robbins jr.

Walks on Fire said...

Redemption comes and goes. In the case of the Ms. Alexander's case redemption was on the way out. In the vein of the beloved Walt Whitman or William Carlos William or Ezra Pound the trajectory of "Make it new" resonates most valid in the experience of poetry.
Otherwise the poet can surely come off as a four-flusher.

In the present instance Ms. Alexander had a difficult task. Unfortunately redemption went instead of came.

RC said...

I don't think it's a problem of the genre, but that Alexander made a fundamental poetic/rhetorical mistake: the poem is terribly generalized. There's not a single specific, real person in it, not even the speaker.

"A woman and her son wait for the bus."

So what? I don't know those people. My undergrads know better, once I get done with 'em.

Compare with, say, Section 15 of Whitman's Song, which is also episodic BUT is held together by the sensibility of the narrator, the visual detail and snap of the language.

I agree with Kelly that Fred Chappell could have done a good job. So could Phil Levine, Adrienne Rich, Patricia Smith, Mark Doty, a number of others.

Anonymous said...

I will second the motion that Patricia Smith is a much better reader and performer of her work, yet it still holds up nicely on the page.

Kelly said...

And for black women poets who could do something significant with a public poem, I'd have suggested Marilyn Nelson, Rita Dove, and Colleen McElroy. No doubt there are others. There must be beauty and dignity in the language, power in the phrasing, and also a moment at which the audience recognizes the expression of its true, best self (not the sentimental, positive-thinking self).

Anonymous said...

For a different take on Ms. Alexander's poem (one that more closely matches my own sentiments), see Mark Tursi's post on his blog: http://living-language.org/ .

Anonymous said...

Obama could've done it. He published a few poems while he was at Occidental. I saw it on Huell Howser. Free Verse. One was called "Pop."

Jonathan Tong said...

I know it wasn't necessarily the perfect poem in terms of what I or others may have expected, but I have to say that it was the one part of the whole inaugural ceremony that brought me to tears.

The whole ceremony was very moving for all the obvious reasons, but your reading of the poem was the only part that actually moved me to tears, and this was as a high school science teacher who had less than an hour earlier told students to pick up their pencils and begin their final exams…

I'm not sure what was so moving, except that to me it captured so beautifully the spirit of the country at that very moment -- the noise and bustle of people going about their business, the many ways we are trying to repair our country and our lives, the power of words on that bright winter day. And perhaps most of all the invocation of love as a widening pool of light that we were being invited to walk forward into toward a future yet unseen. Perhaps this sounded trite to those with more sophisticated tastes, but it genuinely touched my heart. It was a praise song for the day in the truest sense, delivered with clarity and purity.

I remain thankful for this beautiful gift to all of us. It is one I will remember well beyond this day.

Anonymous said...

I liked the poem. It was plain-spoken and very American, and I thought it was perfectly suited for the occasion. All of this criticism reminds me of a particularly worthless poetry conference I attended which only cemented my feeling that it is impossible to edit someone else's poetry. The choices in poetry are simply too personal for anyone but the poet to determine.

huxley said...

I'm struck that those who praise this poem do so with flat assertions. For them, it's an excellent poem because that's who they feel about it. Those who criticize it do so on the basis of the language or how Alexander read. But no one discusses the meaning of the poem as it is, as opposed to what they feel it signifies. In particular, the lines:

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.


To the extent this poem means something--and it does, it is not an Ashbery collage poem--the above lines are the core. What do you make of them?

Frankly I feel a red-state chill to hear on the inauguration of an American president that the conventional American love of spouse, family and country are subordinate to some wider, vaguer love only described as not pre-empting grievance. What does this mean? Will the bill on slavery and civil rights ever be marked "paid", even if a half-black man is elected president?

It sure sounds like another shot across the bow in the cultural wars. JG tells me I'm wrong, but again, this white American does not feel included in Alexander's poem nor in Rev. Lowery's bit of doggerel referring to a time "when white will embrace what is right."

Frankly I think whites have embraced what is right and then some, but I don't get the sense that Alexander and Lowery would agree, and that greivance politics will continue to be alive and healthy in the so-called post-racial, post-Obama America.

John Guzlowski said...

Dear Huxley,

We've moved away from the poem to talk about whether whites and blacks in this country will ever live in harmony with the past all forgotten and forgiven.

Will blacks ever forgive whites and forget the past?

I doubt it and I wouldn't expect them to. As Toni Morrison suggests, Slavery was a Holocaust in some ways greater than the Holocaust the Germans unleashed against the Jews and the Undermensch.

Do we expect those victims and their children to forgive and forget?

Forgive maybe. Forget never.

Would you?

Jill said...

Thank you for articulating the mixed feelings that I had about the poem. While I admired Alexander for the poem, I felt that it fell flat on the ears of millions of people who were listening in spite of the fact that they had a preconceived notion that poetry is not their thing. I want it to be everyone's thing and in this instance, the poem needed to be accessible to the throngs so that every person on the street could say, "Wow, so that is a poem...an elevated use of language that reminds us to see the world with a sense of awe." I was disappointed that this kind of movement of molecules didn't happen.

Anonymous said...

We will never get to post-racial because race once constructed, prevented this from ever happening. What we must get to is an understanding of each other in a balanced and not unbalanced state as in read each others lit. Most African American poets can give you western lit backwards and forwards, but when it comes to reciprocating the gesture, it is just not there. Some people can name a few Af-Am poets, like on one hand, two if lucky. I think if you have read her work then you would know she is very committed to historical accountability. Check out American Sublime. Her providing a detail of history in her poem sought to be inclusive. Maybe in someways if we are to flaw the poem, then we can say that her mistake was that she was trying to be so inclusive that she abstracted her way out of the style in which she chose to write the poem. As poet Jole Diaz pointed out, "if you look at the poem there are some interesting things going on as in we should note note that the poem is comprised of forty-three lines, loosely in iambic pentameter (mostly 9, 10, and 11 syllables) and arranged into 14 tercets, plus one final orphan line. That the body of the poem is 43 lines is no coincidence, since Alexander is smart enough to know that while Obama is the 44th President of these United States, he is the 43rd person to serve as such. This due to Grover Cleveland serving two non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th Presidents. The poem's form, a praise song, is common throughout Africa and especially West Africa, although they are usually written in praise of people, living or dead. Thus a praise song for the occasion mimics the Sankofa bird, a way to look both backwards and forward simultaneously." Like I said, American Sublime deals with the Amistad adventure in American history. Ultimately, any poet that got up in there an delivered a poem was going to be criticized. it was inevitable. Meanwhile her books will sellout and the people who do the most yapping will be one paycheck away from the poor house.

Anonymous said...

Poetry is a very personal experience. There are no poems that I can read out loud -- or thst any of my beloved poets have recorded -- that generate the great waves of joy that otherwise flood my being. That said, my only critique of this work is that too many early verses parallel Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Time will tell.

huxley said...

We've moved away from the poem to talk about whether whites and blacks in this country will ever live in harmony with the past all forgotten and forgiven.

JG -- I haven't moved away from the poem. I still want to know what it means or at least what people think it means. There's been almost no discussion of the meaning of this poem.

It's fine with me if you don't think that these racial issues should ever be forgotten and forgiven. However, Obama ran on a campaign of unity, speaking of an America beyond all these divisions.

Now, I've been skeptical of this rhetoric, suspecting that it was just fine-sounding doubletalk, concealing the usual agenda of the cultural wars, that there is no unity emerging from the Obama era, just the pretense of it, and the use of it as a club against those opposing Obama's side.

That was my takeaway from Alexander's poem. You seem to be validating it.

huxley said...

So again, dear friends, what does Alexander mean in the climax of her poem:

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.


This is a curious kind of love: beyond love of spouse, family and nation, a love never before delineated, qualified only by its refusal to pre-empt grievance.

Does this mean that America is finally off the hook for slavery and civil rights, or does it indicate that the measure of America will always be listening without pre-emption to grievance?

Marilyn A said...

I appreciate Ed's posting. To write a poem for an occasion is a daunting task, and I feel Elizabeth Alexander did a fine job. It could have been better, but it also could have been worse. Initially, the poem struck me as too flat and i found myself feeling critical, but then I really tried to listen to the poem's message, and i appreciated the gratitude expressed to those who work hard everyday and receive little ackwowledgment (those now and in the past who have built the buildings, paved the streets, layed the rails, clean the bathrooms...whatever...duties that are taken for granted and should not be). I felt the poet understood her audience, or at least wanted to include as many people as she could. I received an e-mail from one of my sisters today, and she said she liked the poem--she is not a literary type, but she expressed awe that someone could come up with lines that felt significant in their meaning. I particularly liked these lines:
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

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.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
--
I also liked what she said about love and how it transcends many of the common definitions or conceptions...and how she imagines us walking toward the light. It was a hopeful, inclusive poem. Those who criticize harshly need to get over themselves.

huxley said...

It was a hopeful, inclusive poem. Those who criticize harshly need to get over themselves.

Here's one of my favorite lines from Ring Lardner: "Shut up," he explained.

How is one included by this poem if one is not a person of color or of the working class? How is it a hopeful poem if there is never going to be a unification beyond color lines, as JG seems to argue? What is the future being walked towards -- is it one beyond grievance or one of perpetual grievance? Who is the "we" in this poem?

It doesn't bother me much that Alexander is not including people like me--a white conservative professional. I just dislike the pretense that her poem and the Obama administration is about unity. From what I can tell the unity offered here is the unity Marilyn A offers: Those who disagree need to get over themselves.

Bunnyslippers said...

Huxley wrote:
Frankly I feel a red-state chill to hear on the inauguration of an American president that the conventional American love of spouse, family and country are subordinate to some wider, vaguer love only described as not pre-empting grievance. What does this mean?...This is a curious kind of love: beyond love of spouse, family and nation, a love never before delineated, qualified only by its refusal to pre-empt grievance.

Relax, Huxley. This "curious" love that's been "never before delineated," is nothing more threatening than spiritual or transcendant love--a love that's larger than the emotion we feel toward specific people or concepts such as "my country." She's speaking of a love that is omni-directional and isn't conditioned upon a positive response from the receiver. It's big enough to contain grievances, not "pre-empt" them. This kind of love has been "delineated" thousands of times in discussions and writings on spiritual growth.

I think whites have embraced what is right and then some...will the bill on slavery and civil rights ever be marked "paid", even if a half-black man is elected president?

First, let's be clear that racial discrimination did not end with slavery or the civil rights movement. Not even close. It's naive, unreasonable and insulting to expect people who are suffering ongoing abuse to accept--and be grateful for!--the election of a black president as some sort of "payment" for violations and injuries that have yet to cease.

Second, it's becoming increasingly clear (from statements such as, "It sure sounds like another shot across the bow in the cultural wars," and "Now, I've been skeptical of this rhetoric, suspecting that it was just fine-sounding doubletalk, concealing the usual agenda of the cultural wars,") that you are filtering Ms. Alexander's poem through a predisposition to see racial references and motives where they may not exist. I, for one, did not take the poem to have any such confrontational meaning, and I am a white woman.

Third, I believe your filter is also operating when you speak of the poem excluding those who are not people of color or working class. The poem made no reference to people of color, regardless of what terminology you prefer. So, by your standards, they should feel excluded too.

But, seriously, have you never fixed a tire, darned a hole, repaired something in need of repair, or waited at a bus stop? Or would you feel more included if she'd swapped out one of those for a line about debugging a program?

She was trying to address (albeit clumsily, for the most part) the common elements of human experience--the mundanities almost all of us can relate to. I won't defend the poem--I critiqued it above--but if there's one thing it wasn't, it's exclusionary.

Meg said...

For gosh sakes....don't..whatever you do...ask a poet.

Poetry so caught up with its own smarminess....eliticity.

This poem is most definitely not elitic enough for most but I will bet that the average man...liked it a great deal.

Because he could understand it.



The fine line...taking the pencils out and beginning..the connection to the dire state of affairs in the educational community and system...is:

right there. Just right. Absolute.

What one can see however is the factoid that love is not in the air in the field of poetry and most definitely...there's a whole generation of poets that are going to go down the tubes because of their insistence on pure:

bull malarkey.

Eric J said...

huxley: on nominal inclusion. you can have power, or you can have pity (for you). but you cannot have both. if you perceive unfairness here, would you really trade your power for a mention? or for the position that would gain you the sympathy you seek, that of certain groups of people structurally marginalized (though never individually defeated and not to be pitied anyway) from the mainstream you navigate.

Anna Leahy said...

This week, I've been reading Marjorie Garber's new book Patronizing the Arts, in which she discusses the previous Inaugural Poems. Robert Frost prepared what was considered, once it appeared in print, a lousy--flat, didn't sing--poem, but the sun and wind prevented him from reading that poem at the Inauguration. So, he recited "The Gift Outright," which was criticized as too old-fashioned for ushering in the Kennedy presidency. Maya Angelou's poem was criticized, as were many of the speeches by the president for whose inauguration she wrote the poem, for being too long. The poem, though, became a bestseller, and Angelou was deemed a popular poet instead of a poet's poet. As Garber points out, the various ways of patronizing--supporting and condescending to--are complicated. Inaugural Poems get mixed reviews.

Was Elizabeth Alexander's poem a good poem? A good poem for the occasion? An occasion to talk about metaphor, truth, and lies on The Colbert Report? Should we appreciate the fact of an Inaugural Poem more than the poem itself? Should we consider what a "praise song" is and whether that shakes up our notions of poetry in the United States? Should we hold every poem accountable to art, to the expectations we have that a poem be more than the sum of its parts, that it sing, because art must be true to itself first and foremost?

I go back and forth on the poem. When I heard it the first time, I was mostly just nervous for Alexander, standing in the cold in front of millions of people. But I did get caught up in the language at two points; at times, it felt like a poem more than an occasion. I sought the transcript out even before the poem, with its line breaks, was released. Alexander's appearance on The Colbert Report, I admit, made me want to appreciate the poem more. People starting posting snippets in their Facebook statuses.

So, I read it again and then again. When is the last time I heard and read, silently and aloud, a single poem many times over the course of a few days? It's been too long. I must do that more often.

But I can't keep my eye on this poem. I can't yet just read the words, can't bring myself to just let them linger on my tongue and echo in my head. Instead, I think about the larger stuff of our times; the poem and its original context keeps pushing me out to larger issues of our current conditions.

Did you know that there is $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in the proposed stimulus package? When I read the poem today, that's part of Alexander's poem, too. The poem urges me to call my Senators. Is that what a poem should do? But wait, that's not why I catch my breath in that penultimate stanza's language:

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

leon lewis said...

I may have missed it among all of
the responses to Alexander's
poem, but did anyone notice an echo of Yeats's "Easter 1916" in the opening lines? I recall Alexander mentioning Yeats among the poets she had in mind while composing the inaugural poem, but it might be a bit risky to use his structural arrangement. Since it
doesn't seem to have been mentioned, perhaps she should have
taken more from Yeats, or from some other memorable poem composed
for an historical event.
Leon Lewis

huxley said...

Bunnyslippers -- Thanks for a substantive response. However, I don't see your claims backed up by Alexander's words.

Transcendent love has been described many times and in many ways--often mentioning God for instance--but if that was Alexaner's intent, she should have said something more than "love with no need to pre-empt grievance," which in the overall black-white context of the poem and Obama's inauguration sounds like, well, grievance talk, which, however justified, is something different and less than transcendent love...or even marital, filial, and national love in my opinion.

And, sure, I've fixed a tire and whatnot, but I don't think that qualifies me as part of the "we" in this poem who tried to make music "with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum," a "boom box", or "harmonica"--all bringing to mind images of blacks. The "cello" exception is no doubt "Yo Yo Ma" who played at the inauguration and is not white. Nor have I "picked cotton and lettuce," nor "built glittering edifices brick by brick."

We are left with the choice that either Alexander meant to write the inclusive, transcendent poem you describe but failed because she was incompetent to add the references and images that would have rounded things out to include all Americans, or she was writing the usual leftist poem from the viewpoint of the underclass and minorities, speaking truth to power and so forth.

Understand that I have no objection to the latter poem as such--and I believe that is the poem I believe Alexander wrote--however, I am not willing to pretend that this is a great inclusive poem of hope, change and our glittering new post-racial society.

huxley said...

I'm fascinated that no one in this discussion has dealt with the meaning of this poem as written.

The posts are all about how the poem makes people feel or how successful or unsuccessful its poetic mechanics were as written or read.

Anonymous said...

One is pleased to note that despite its reputation, Yale too has its share of totally incompetent, self-centered,dull, boring, bewildered, and overpaid Faculty. This poet joins a long line of extraneous,talent-less pay roll recipients at our Universities.

And as for the posturing of some of the pseudo-intellectuals trying to make arrogant sense of an unintelligible scramble of words, the less said. Most are trying to keep intellectual incest alive and well.If we are honest, this was a dreadful poem, dreadfully read, and destined to kill any child's enthusiasm for the subject any way.

Anonymous said...

Bless Anonymous for a dose of reality!

Public Information Project(PIPROM) said...

Nothing wrong with the poem, poetry like any other creative endervour thrives on variety. Not a grat poetry though, but certainly a worthy attempt.

huxley said...

"Praise Song" is not a great poem, but it is hardly an "unintelligible scramble of words" either.

Actually it is a straightforward poem. Alexander presents a visual and emotional snapshot of how she imagines blacks, working-class, and minorities as they process the impact of Obama's historic inauguration, after the shame of slavery and the struggles of civil rights. The poem ends on the note of possibility, now that this landmark has been reached.

My problems with the poem are poetic and political. Poetically, the poem is often flat, trite, and clumsy (e.g. one does not "make music" with a boom box, as one does with a cello) and Alexander's reading was so flat and sing-songish that I wanted to run as the video played on my computer.

Politically, I note that the poem is the sort of PC leftist narrative one would expect from a professor of African-American studies. There is no celebration of America, or even mention of America, only the mention of a love that goes beyond the nation. No celebration of the American people, only people of color and the working-class. No celebration of the American system under which Obama was elected president, only a nod to the future which can at last be remade.

Stephen Morrissey said...

I am impressed that a poem, any poem, can elicit such a lot of talk... It's not the greatest poem but it was the only poetry at the inauguration. I listened to her reading the poem, I didn't expect much and I came away impressed. Not the greatest poem, but a good poem. The problem is that she is not a good public reader of her work.

upinVermont said...

//However, rather than commission a poet to write an occasional poem for the political proceedings...//

This is an odd assertion. It's as if the fault were in the occasion. She might have been commissioned to write a poem *for* a political occasion but, to my knowledge, she was never commissioned to write *about* a political proceeding. Alexander chose what to write. Her effort, to me & many others, was mediocre - both in *what* she wrote and *how* she chose to write.

//...some of the finest advice beginning poets often receive....concerns an avoidance of writing toward a predetermined goal or abstract notion.//

Then the fault is hers for not following it.

//Pieces written under such conditions by young poets, or even experienced poets, usually feel forced, display didacticism, or demonstrate a graceless tendency toward prosaic statement rather than lyricism and imagery.//

Poems of *any sort* by younger poets or inexperienced poets "usually" demonstrate graceless tendencies. This isn't a convincing exculpatory argument. And it's a rather odd way to defend or excuse Alexander It verges on paralipsis. Not that I disagree.

//Still, Elizabeth Alexander deserves commendation for her courage as she literally placed herself and her poetry in front of the nation for critical examination.//

Alexander didn't do anything a thousand other poets wouldn't have done. If that's the best that can be said of her effort, then it's truly the praise that damns.

It is possible to write great poetry for a given occasion. It just takes a great poet. To suggest that no poet can rise to the occasion, in my view, is to deny the existence of mediocrity.

Bunnyslippers summed up a lot of my own criticisms.

//repairing the things in need of repair//

This is the most ridiculously vacuous and redundant line in the poem. What else is anyone going to repair *but* a thing in need of repair?

huxley said...

SM -- Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama or Elizabeth Alexander, it was a historic moment. No matter who Obama chose as the inaugural poet, the poem would have elicited much talk.

It was a shame that Obama made his pick, when it came to poetry, on the basis of politics--a black, female, PC-correct ivy-leaguer with familial roots in the civil rights movement--rather than someone who could deliver the goods.

I've looked through One Poet's site and I am impressed with Edward Byrne's acumen. Nonetheless, it's clear he was pulling his punches and making excuses for Alexander.

No, it's not too much to expect a professional, top-form poet to deliver a memorable, or at least adequate, inaugural poem. Elizabeth Alexander is an amateur.

I like Mary Oliver, though I'm not a huge fan. I don't know how well she reads, but I'm sure she could have delivered an excellent, moving, accessible, and PC poem for the occasion. But she's not black, she's not Ivy League, she's not part of any movement, and Obama couldn't have paid any debts by choosing her. Nonetheless, I bet she could have knocked our ears off the other day.

huxley said...

upinVermont -- Great post, great blog entry.

You are quite correct. Elizabeth Alexander didn't do anything a thousand other poets wouldn't have done, and a few hundred IMO wouldn't have done better.

Furthermore, I am fed up with the notion that poets ought not write with a pre-determined goal in mind. That's simply a conceit and a laziness of the current age of poetry. It's exactly the same as supposing that poets ought not write to the constraints of meter or rhyme or other external form. Sure, it's not the only way to write poetry but it is a way, and it has its own charm, benefits and risks.

Kirsten said...

Great post! What a balanced review. Thanks so much.
K.E. Ogden

Mary said...

Could someone help me with E. Alexander's poem?

I am talking about its literary form: is there any? What kind of "verse" is this? I somehow fail to see not only any talent, but any literary skill in this production. Am I wrong or right?

As far as the message goes, it is quite clear: in our daily life we fail to see the epic dimensions of simple things, such as “a woman and her son wait for the bus” etc.

The epic implications: we all have various backgrounds, and we sort of owe this glorious day to our diverse ancestors, who made this day possible.

(By the way, I see no “creative necessity” to stop this listing of everyday scenes at that particular point. It could have continued for pages and pages: a girl is smoking in the doorway; a mother is peeling potatoes; the guy upstairs is moving furniture, etc.)

The idea, though not very profound or innovative, could have been presented beautifully. And here is my problem with the poem. People call Ms. Alexander’s creation “verse”, but could somebody PLEASE show me where the versification is? I am an immigrant who studied the versification styles of Shakespeare, Byron, Burns, Poe, Frost and many others, but all I can see in Ms. Alexander’s work is lack of skill (or talent).

Is she really teaching style and poetry at Yale?

P.S. “When brown can stick around … etc.” – has nothing to do with poetry, imagery or style. It is simply primitive and vulgar, worse than “call 1-800-get-a-wife, we’ll keep you happy all your life.”

Could someone explain?

huxley said...

According to Alexander's CV on her website, she is: Professor, African American Studies and American Studies, Yale University. Incoming Chair, Department of African-American Studies.

So she seems to be more of a teacher of African American studies than English. However, she is also a poet with many publications, awards and honors to her name.

Her poem is not unusual by modern standards: a free verse sequence of three-line stanzas. Furthermore, the "praise song" is a widely used poetic form in Africa.

The problem with her poem doesn't lie in the form or her credentials, but in the poem itself.

Shahwar Kibria said...

It's a beautiful poem, to "say it plain"!

Thanks for putting it up here!

Anonymous said...

Soulful Obama poem set to jazz:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvZ1AaZOnQo

Small business web site design said...

it’s good