Elizabeth Alexander reads her inaugural poem, following Barack Obamas address. (AP photo)
Elizabeth Alexander reads her inaugural poem, following Barack Obama's address. (AP photo)

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.

19 thoughts on “Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem

  1. Agreed. I liked the arch of the poem – the sentiment she attempted to express was beautiful, but it was done in a way that pales in comparison to the prose of Obama. It is a bit unfair that she had to follow his act. The Maya Angelou poem is stunning, as is most of her work. I know she read at Clinton’s inauguration, but I kind of wanted to recreate that for Obama, and was a little sad she wasn’t brought back.

    The best poetry of the day was most certainly Dr. Lowery: “When brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead man and when white would embrace what is right.” Ha! Awesome.

  2. the poem, fyi, is not in iambic pentameter (though it contains a handful of pentameter lines); so Alexander is hardly to be blamed for your finding that meter inappropriate….

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth Alexander Inaugural Poem
  4. I liked the sentiments of the poem very much. Pure and simple, it was refreshingly uplifting and I will enjoy reading it many times.

  5. After being so excited to hear the poem, I was really disappointed by both the poem itself and her delivery. The only good part for me was the beginning about the ancestors on our tongues…after that the poem got self-conscious and tried so hard it failed. It felt very sterile, and end up being embarrasing to hear.

    Maybe Elizabeth should have just written something personal about being at the King speech as a toddler, and what the inauguration meant to her? That would have been a more inspiring poem!

  6. Nick, thanks for the catch and the correction. I’ve edited my post. Her poem is largely iambic, but it’s hardly pentameter. (I was lazy in adopting the erroneous observation from <a href="http://watching-tv.ew.com/2009/01/president-obama.html"Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, without scanning it myself.)

    Julia, I wasn’t very balanced in my critique, focusing on the things I didn’t like. And as you know, I have a penchant for going overboard. Even though I said it, I don’t think it was truly a “bad” poem so much as one that I thought (and wish) could have been better. The excellent line will certainly stick with me, “In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

    I should also say that I much prefer Elizabeth Alexander’s poem to the gripes and fears of those who say writing an original poem for a president’s inauguration is impossible. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, all.

  7. I concur with your “poem seems to last forever because it’s bad poetry” comment, although at the time, all I thought was, “sheesh, this is WAY too long.”

    It reminds me of George Burns explaining relativity to Gracie Allen. He said that a minute passes really fast for a man watching a pretty girl, but for someone sitting on a hot stove, a minute seems like forever. “From this,” Gracie said, “Einstein made a living?”

    People LIKE good poetry; stuff by Robert Service, for instance. They THINK they don’t, though, which is why Leonard Cohen couldn’t survive as a poet, but became highly successful when he set them to music. People admit to liking lyrics.

  8. Obama and Angelou are a tough act to follow. I agree that the natural poets at the podium weren’t the ones chosen to write and recite the inaugural poem. That said, I thought the poem was OK, given that it was aimed at an entire country of people who barely read, much less read and try to understand the intricacies of poetry.

    I, for one, am happy enough that poetry was included in the inauguration. And though the poem certainly could have been better, richer (thinking Angelou here) it was serviceable and I appreciated its inclusion. Maybe I’m thinking that any poetry is better than no poetry, and I don’t like to admit to having that thought. But considering the state poetry is in right now–barely in existence–I guess that’s what I am admitting to thinking. I wish it weren’t so.

  9. Daniel,

    I think that you make many good observations about Alexander’s poem, and its weaknesses.

    I have not looked at it as text, but I was (personally) taken by it, and enjoyed it, and found that I could listen to it again at YouTube without pain.

    I recognize that she is a minor poet, and is not going to rock our socks off with an Eliot-like or Frost-like poem for the ages, but I thought it excelled the Warren prayer offered, and fit the occasion.

    I agree with you that Obama is a hard act to follow—and that Obama’s speeches have poetic elements that are, in places, more poetic than the poet’s.

    You compare Alexander’s poem unfavorably to Maya Angelou’s. I haven’t gone back to look at Angelou’s, but your observation may prompt me to do so.

    As for the “green theme” that you use for you blog, I wanted to use it but couldn’t figure out how to put the “about” page in the side margin (like yours is).

    If it’s not complicated, could you tell me how you did that?

    —Santi (my blog is Prometheus Unbound)

  10. Oh I *liked* the poem. It did seem longer to hear than to see on paper–I think because it was read slowly and very deliberately, and we didn’t know when it would end (only infinity to measure it against.)
    The boy and mother waiting for the bus–blunt, no explanation–
    but no father, not on their way to the beach or amusement, probably she to her job, first a stop at his daycare–whatever whoever can be found to keep her little boy during the hours she has to work.
    Have you ever hand-lettered a sign? The last letters skinny!–ha ha that’s the “figuring it out at kitchen tables” .
    I opened my mutual fund statement 2 hours ago, before this surfing, and I have $4000.00 less than same time last year. So “banal” spoke to me, I understand that I am building something I will then “keep clean and work inside of”.
    Please understand I am no understander of what poetry should be!

  11. Hi Daniel, I’m moving a conversation you and I began on my blog to your blog as it looks like a very rich conversation.

    I’m not a poet and don’t know much about good or bad poetry either. I personally liked the rhythm and pacing of her reading. While her words were mundane, for me it was in the silences between the words that the poem had meaning. Much like the last comment, we each filled in our own stories. I think it was the silences, the negative space, that made the poem feel long to some. For me, they added to the richness.

    Carla (my blog, which is only a day old, is speakingpresence.wordpress.com)

  12. As a practicing poet, I maintain that the poem was indeed bad and that the delivery was worse. Cliche, pat, and ineffectual.

    It is not impossible to write a poem that is generally reconized as good and lives up to the moment, even on a day like that one. I couldn’t help feeling as if she believed it was impossible to do so, so she didn’t even try.

  13. I’d like to see practictioners (how dry, not pretty as the simple title of poet) of poetry take on the challenge of writing the inaugural poem understanding that:

    1) they have the benefit/misfortune of not having been selected as the Inaugural poet for Barack Obama
    2) they do not have to deliver it to 1,000s upon 1,000s of people who do not even read poetry, let alone understand what constitutes a good poem
    3) they do not have to deliver it to people living in a time where reading is no longer our greatest pasttime because of our dwindling attention spans
    4) they have examples, however few, of what an inaugural poem has been, is and should be because it has been attempted by a few poets prior.
    5) they do not have 2 months or less (November 4, 2008 and January 20, 2009) to create, revise and revise some more, and examine the nuances, consider the approach, consider the delivery, etc.

    Let’s attempt to write an Inaugural poem about this enormous time in our history. I’ll do the same. Then come back and post comments about your poem’s efficacy. I’m sure many poems will be and have been written about this time, but none under the pressure and the large critical body that is America.

    Klotz, I (personally) appreciate your interest to consider the makings of this poem, the effective lines, stanzas, images and the forum. I’ve also read your explication of “Praise Song for the Day.” Pretty darn extensive and even objective at times. This dialogue is great 🙂


  14. As far as the message goes, it is quite clear: she is trying to tell us that 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 are conveyed by the fact that 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 scenes from everyday life 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.)

    And here is my problem with the poem. The idea could have been presented beautifully. But was it? The author calls 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, Shelly and many others, but all I can see in Ms. Alexander’s work is lack of skill.

    If she is teaching style and poetry at Yale, I am scared for 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?

Comments are now closed.