Well, not a big response to our poll on the inauguration poem — perhaps because so many websites have been carrying people’s responses. Just one person voted who said the poem was good, rather than middling or great.
Occasional poems aren’t easy to write. Add to that the formal demands of a praise song, and compound the matter further with the expectations of a vast and varied audience on an unprecedented occasion… Clearly Elizabeth Alexander had her work cut out for her.
Setting aside for now how good or bad the poem was, a great many people commented that Professor Alexander’s reading didn’t transmit the poem’s music, didn’t make the best use of its natural rhythms. And the audience did have a right to expect music, for the poem had named itself that way — it was, after all, a praise song. Perhaps the poet read slowly because she wanted people to understand; perhaps she was awed by the occasion. Whatever it was, the truth is, even if not all poets are performers, this poet on this occasion needed to be one, needed to steep herself in the imagined moment, so that when she opened her mouth before the great congregation, the poem would emerge powerfully, as Rev Lowery’s prayer did. (In fact, some people have compared the poem, unfavourably, to Rev Lowery’s benediction.)
Quraysh Ali Lansana, director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing and associate professor of English and creative writing at Chicago State University had this to say: “Elizabeth is a poet who renders her work very much in the way that many poets have been schooled or trained, certainly many academics, which is to read the poem and sort of let the words live on their own, without the emotional emphasis placed in certain areas… It is a school of thought for many poets and academics, and I am an academic, but I don’t ascribe to this approach to reading work.”
Might there be, lurking under his comment about the manner of ‘reading work,’ a similar observation about writing it?
Why did so many people not like the poem? Is it perhaps because their poetic expectations derive from the diet of rhyme (straight or slant), rhythm, and ‘deep emotion,’ that still characterize many popular songs? Such expectations might account for a comment like, “This is poetry? Gosh, if I'd turned in this kind of crap in elementary school, I'd have failed on the spot… Dr Suess (sic) did a better job!” or one like, “The dull and somewhat monotonous reading style improved very little the bland and repetitious verses of a confusing poem…”
Wordsworth, in that famous long-time definition, saw a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” as being at the root of the poetry-making activity, and rhyme and rhythm are ancient, worthy tools of poetic craft. Indeed, rhyme or no rhyme — there’s no issue about rhythm, for if it’s words, they will have rhythm — an occasional poem needs to rise to the occasion, and if the event is as big as this one was, then there needs must be a mighty rising.
So what did I think of the poem? I think the poet did a good, work-woman-like job, but not a great one, which I suppose amounts to saying that she didn’t quite manage to meet the demands of the moment. Some people say she was trying to fit in with Obama’s low-key, practical, we-have-lots-of-work-to-set-about-doing speech. I don’t agree. I think she saw her job right. It was to sing a praise song, and, as David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times observed, in the stanza in which she recalled the stories of the many whose struggles made the day possible, her poem did make music.
But I think we must at least consider the possibility that some persons have hijacked poetry and run off with it to a distant hill, where they have been cooking and reheating the poetic corpse so that it’s now a weary, wary, prosy poetry. That might explain the poet letting out the string so that the kite of her poem (in the verse Ulin refers to) lifts with, “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…” only to fetch it up in some prosy brambles by proceeding to describe the edifices as ones “they would then keep clean and work inside of…” Oh dear!
All of which brings me back to the question in my previous post about whether there are many different poetries…