Sunday, January 25, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

inauguration-picDon't read this post if you're looking for an explanation of this poem's meaning. Daniel Klotz has written a top-notch and favorable analysis of the poem's meaning. I debated analyzing Alexander's Poem since this isn't normally the kind of poetry that interests me - not that I think free verse isn't capable of great poetry. But being a poet, and having an interest in the art, my own perspective is that of a poet who prefers form and meter to none at all.

Here's Alexander's poem as lineated by the New York Times. I've seen lots of "versions" on the net, but Newsweek and the New York Times both seem to agree on this lineation. The fact that no one (except, presumably, those who have recieved a copy of the poem) can agree on a lineation tells us that there's no difference between this and a paragraph of prose. (There's no formal reason to lineate free verse poetry - it more or less serves as a sign that a given piece of writing should be read and treated like a poem written in a meter or a form.)
Praise Song for the Day

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.

An article in the Guardian wrote about her: "She is smart, deeply educated in the traditions of poetry..." She may be deeply educated in the traditions of poetry, but none of that education is on display in her inaugural poem. Not knowing who wrote the poem, I would have considered it the work of a dilettante. I still do. One can be deeply educated in the traditions of poetry and still write amateurish poetry.

Her reading of the poems sounded affected to my ears - school-marmish. There was no sense of drama, content or development. Each section was read with same enunciated intonation. So many poets, nowadays, read like this. I don't know where they learn it (except each other), but it seems to be a free-verse affectation. If any0ne were to buy a book on tape, with reading like this, I suspect they wouldn't make it past page 2.

The skill of the poem itself was woefully dilettantish. 33 of her lines are end-stopped. The poem consists of 43 lines. That means that 76% of her lines are end-stopped. If she were writing using meter, such a ratio would be immediately considered amateurish - even among amateurs. It shows a lack of imagination even in free verse poetry. 400 years ago, poets like Shakespeare, Johnson and Donne left such inflexible verse far behind.

This perhaps only reflects my philosophy, but a poem is more than its subject matter. A paragraph in any given book can be poetic but that doesn't make it poetry. Likewise, Alexander's poem is little more than a lineated paragraph - poetic but not poetry.

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

The poems begins with quotidian language and imagery. The phrase "catching each other's/eyes" is shopworn - evoking nothing beyond the familiarity of the phrase itself.
All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

The images are clichéd at best - trite at worst. Bramble is mildly more evocative than thorn, but the use of thorn in this context is clichéd - hardly worthy of an inaugural poem. The mirroring syntax (noise<---bramble) (thorn--->din) is meant to be rhetorical but is vacuous. The counterpoised nouns, adding nothing in the way of insight to each other, sound pretentious rather than elegant. The phrase "ancestors on our tongues" might turn out to be the poem's most memorable image.

patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

This is mere rhetorical padding. If the 'things' weren't "in need of repair", then they wouldn't be "repairing the things". The repetition of the phrase sounds satisfying and 'poetic' but it's redundant. We always repair the things in need of repair, otherwise we wouldn't be repairing them. Alexander's rhetorical gloss conceals a vacuity of thought.
make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box...

The fact that one doesn't "make music" with a boom-box has already been mentioned at other blogs. The missing articles are a poetic affectation - a mannerism that has itself become clichéd. Besides that, the lines evoke nothing. There is no sense of sound despite the reference to music. Alexander creates a sort of bland poem of enumeration - a watered down Praise Song. Interestingly, a Praise-Song is an African poetic form. Brittanica states: the form consists of "a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised." This partly explains the feeling that the poem is a poem-of-enumeration, but Alexander's use of the form is unimaginative.


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

Again, there is no poetry in these lines. No color. No smell. No touch. No taste. The only sense, arguably, is that of sight. Changing evokes nothing. It's hard to even call this "poetic". The enumeration begun in the stanza before is continued and the tone verges on the pedantic - only reinforced by the unfortunate reference to teachers and the taking out of pencils.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth,

Spiny is one of the only glimmers of poetry in the entirety of the piece.

From this point on, between the lines beginning "Say it plain..." and ending with "pre-empt grievance", there is not a single evocative image. There is no sense of touch, taste, smell, etc... The images are all nominative. The only descriptor that hints at something poetic is in "glittering edifices " - but even this image verges on cliché. This isn't poetry. It's prose and flavorless prose at that. It might be suitable, as others have said, for an essay.
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.

"Sharp sparkle" is another stab at poetry but barely rises above the mundane. She falls back into cliché with brink, brim and cusp - offering us nothing novel but another asyndetic list. Referencing back to Brittanica, the Encyclopedia offers the following example of an African Praise Song.

He is Shaka the unshakeable,
Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi.
He is the bird that preys on other birds,
The battle-axe that excels over other
battle-axes.
He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
Who pursued the sun and the moon.
He is the great hubbub like the rocks of
Nkandla
Where elephants take shelter
When the heavens frown. . . .
(trans. by Ezekiel Mphahlele)
Even in translation, and as an extract, there is more poetry in this praise song than in Alexander's.

11 comments:

danielklotz.com said...

Thank you for linking to, and recommending, by blog. Thank you also for your thoughtful and encouraging comments there.

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading your detailed exploration of the poem, particularly because you read it so differently from the way I did. I feel like our two entries are a sort of conversation--one that is honest, respectful, and passionate.

Miguelito said...

You're brilliant dismemberment of her so-called poetry destroyed my poetic slumber. Her poem was soporific to say the least and was devoid of passion and missing flavor the way boiling water is missing broth. Her words were empty calories for a public that thrives on mental junk food. Vultures wouldn't eat from the flimsy carcass of her poem. There was no connection in her words, just malformed thoughts masquerading as art. Poe, Shakespeare, Dickinson and all the other greats are moaning in their graves.

Aaron said...

Coming from someone who appreciates poetry but does not analyze it at this level I can say that the only memorable line for me was""ancestors on our tongues". My thought was that this poem reeked of pretentiousness. The only way I knew it was poetry was because she spoke in a measured way as if the words were carefully planned somehow (but didn't seem to be). My thought while watching was "if this stuff actually means something special to poetry buffs, it is still not correct for this occasion". Did you see the daily show's spoof of this where they cut to a bunch of people in the crowd leaving during the poem? Hillarious.

I did get a kick out of Yo-Yo-Ma playing out in the cold though.

upinVermont said...

//I did get a kick out of Yo-Yo-Ma playing out in the cold though.//

He was bow-syncing. The performance was pre-recorded. The piano's keys had been disconnected from the hammers. Aaron, it was all synced. They were play-acting.

They had good reason though. On a 20 degree day, their instruments would have sounded like out-of-tune sackbutts.

Aaron said...

You can't be serious. They were certainly playing it, but are you telling me they weren't plugged in? Where did you see that they were faking it?

upinVermont said...

//They were certainly playing it//

Nope. It was all an act. Seriously. Not a single note was coming out of their instruments. Perlman and Ma put grease on their bows. They recorded it the day before - indoors and warm.

//but are you telling me they weren't plugged in?//

Nope.

//Where did you see that they were faking it?//

Based on an interview with Ma, Friday evening on NPR.

Aaron said...

What great performers they are. Especially Ma who kept smiling and contorting his fce while looking at Perlman as if to say "oh ya you really hit that note well". Whatever.

I wondered initially because I know that if I were sitting out there with my guitar a.) the strings would not stay in tune for a millisecond and b.) my fingers wouldn't move worth a damn. But they made such good face orgasms I was convinced.

Anonymous said...
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Miguelito said...

Wtf are you talking about? Manachurian candidate? A coup? What? Are you off your meds again or what? This is a place for rational people not imbeciles or crazy people which means you are twice excluded.

upinVermont said...

Steve,

I'm not into your repartee. If you're commenting on one of my posts then write something intelligent and on topic. Seriously. I'll hit the delete button every single time until you do. My patience with this stuff is over. That dog don't hunt no more.

Miguelito said...

At any rate (thank you for deleting that mind-boggling comment) I'm looking for someone to objectively critique my poetry and/or style. You seem to have the skill and ruthless honesty to do so, would have any interest or time to pore over some of my stuff? My email is khylate@gmail.com. Have a nice day