Seeing the text of the poem Elizabeth Alexander read at today’s inauguration ceremony, I was shocked by its brevity. Watching it on TV, I estimated it at four pages of verse. Given the regular 12-point single-spaced treatment, it easily fits on two.
Why did “Praise Song for the Day” deceptively feel so long, then? I think it’s because it was a bad poem.
I expressed my disappointment almost immediately on Twitter, on the basis that it was like following the rich, complex wine of Obama’s speech with a sweet but banal juice box. (This is a big deal to me because inaugurations are one of the few times when poetry takes a prominent role in our collective cultural experience.)
Stanley Kunitz said that the great poetic languages are English and Russian. When asked about Italian, he said it doesn’t need poetry to lift it up—the language is so naturally rich and resonant that it is itself poetry. Like the Italian language, Barack Obama doesn’t need poetry.
It’s not hard to find the poetry built in to his inaugural address. Hear the alliteration in lines like “We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents” and “power alone cannot protect us.” See the Psalm-like parallelism of “a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.” Hear the intentional rhythm and feel its sobering effect: “The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.” His regard for a nation that has “tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation” is nothing if not poetic. Above all, in his delivery, it was clear that he was in control of his words and phrases, not the other way around.
So yes, the deck was stacked against Elizabeth Alexander. She had a tough act to follow. Tough, but not impossible.
Some would argue against me and say that writing an “occasional” poem (a poem written for an occasion) is always a doomed endeavor. Jim Fisher, writing last week in Salon, explains why if it’s not impossible to write a good ceremonial poem, it’s damn near.
Other poets were asked by media outlets to write poems for Obama’s inauguration, and they are all bad. David Lehman, in his role as series editor of the annual Best American Poetry anthologies, spends his days surrounded by good poems, but the poem he eked out spends too long playing with the analogy “as unlikely as fun on jury duty,” and winds up sounding like an emo congratulatory note. Its literary and thematic complexity would never have worked broadcast over a public-address system to a cold and restless crowd of millions. Nikki Giovanni dodged NPR’s assignment by being cute (“I’m Barack Obama | And I’m here to say: | I’m President | Of the USA”), and Gayle Danley never makes the intensely person quite univeral enough. (Edit: A day later, I have discovered Marvin Bell’s “Yes, We Can,” published by the Iowa City Press-Citizen. I’m a long-time fan of Bell’s work, and I think this effort measures up.)
But then, if the task is impossible, how do you explain the beauty and success of Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” read at the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton in 1993?
I think Angelou proves the task possible. Elizabeth Alexander would have been wise to study her tricks. Angelou organizes her poem neatly, in a way fit for public address, around three objects of nature: a rock, a river, and a tree. Each have something to offer and to teach us, the audience, the listener. The rock gives us a place to stand in full view and out of hiding, teaching us to believe in ourselves once again, telling us we “have crouched too long in | The bruising darkness.” The river calls us to sit at its bank and there reminds of peace, of the time “before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow.” The tree demonstrates how to live and thrive as a part of wherever it is we find ourselves.
It’s rare for me to regard iambic meter as inappropriate for anything, but it was inappropriate today in Alexander’s poem. As an organizing force, it doesn’t hold a candle to a simple structure like Angelou employs. By using a structure that divides up her poem, she frees herself to use words and phrases with freedom and playfulness. Alexander, by contrast, couldn’t afford the double-constraint of a clear structure stacked on top of (mostly) iambic meter.
In adopting and exploring other voices (those of the rock, river and tree), Angelou as poet steps aside and lets the meaning take center stage. Alexander keeps her own voice, causing poet and meaning to jostle for our focus.
And then, while Angelou chooses to say extraordinary things in ordinary ways, Alexander says ordinary things in extra-ordinary ways. “Each of you, descendent of some passed- | On traveler, has been paid for,” Angelou writes. A mind-bending idea couched in comfortable language. (I can imagine saying something common in that way, like “Each of you, citizens of the United States, has paid taxes.”) Alexander, on the other hand, constantly calls attention to herself as Poet, while expressing a meaning that isn’t particularly deep. “Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce” is striking, but what does it mean? What it means turns out to be something less extraordinary than the way in which it is said. “Love with no need to preempt grievance”?
Alexander constantly invokes images she doesn’t know how to handle, certainly not with the deftness that Obama does. We are told that “a woman and her son wait for the bus.” OK. Now what? Where’s the vision?
There lies the central disappointment of today’s poem. The themes, feelings and images were pure Obama, minus the vision and inspiration. A great occasional poem steps back, moves around, and helps us see and experience the event in a different way, a surprising way we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. Such a poem uncovers new layers, adding depth of meaning to what is happening. A great poem, like Angelou’s, develops an event like a frame enhances a painting. A mediocre one, like Alexander’s, merely looks fancy and rehashes what we’ve already experienced.