". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Poem

I should probably just keep my mouth shut about this. After all, I'm not a poet (at least not in public!) and she is. But against my better judgment I just have to say . . .

That Inaugural poem was a dud.

I heard it before I saw it in print, so part of my reaction is probably due to the delivery. It's better read than spoken. (At least on paper it looks a little like a poem.) But Ms. Alexander's recitation was incredibly stilted, reminscent of one of those too-syrupy computer-generated female voices you hear when you call your bank or insurance company (why are they always female, anyway?)

Here's the text of the poem, with my humble annotations (to give it a fair shake, you should probably first read the poem in its entirety here ). Feel free to disagree.

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

(Well, that does seem to cover all the bases. But "Each day we go about our business"? Not an auspicious start, if you ask me. Sounds like a bank commercial.)

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

(Okay, this I get. The information society in which we live is definitely a brambly one. And yet there's a disconnect here. Brambles and thorns are visual/tactile images. They seem to me better suited to representing internal noise--the noise of our minds--than the external noise of the world, which is what I think she is talking about here. Also, what does it mean to have one's ancestors on your tongue? Can someone help me out with this one? And why is that reference there amidst the bramble?)

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

(Good. I like the concrete, Whitman-esque images. But like much of the poem, the third line is prosaic rather than poetic in the number of words required to express the thought behind the images. This is exposition, not poetry. )

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

(More Whitman a la "I Hear America Singing.") But please, a boom box? I'm sorry, but pushing the "play" button is a far cry from lifting one's own voice or playing the cello or harmonica. or drum. This is a cheap nod to the Obama youth vote. It doesn't belong here.)

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

(Okay, I'll give her a few points here. The second line is especially good. Would have been nice, though, if there had been a family in there somewhere.)

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

(Spiny? Don't know about that one. My thoughts have suddenly turned to dinosaurs.)

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.

("What's on the other side"? Um, that would be the chicken, right?)

I know there’s something better down the road. (sigh. That tired old "road" metaphor again. It's been done, and far better.)
We need to find a place where we are safe. (Talk about a "duh" moment. Mr. Obama, are you listening?)
We walk into that which we cannot yet see. (Now she's making sense. We have no idea what this guy is going to do.)

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.

(What about those who died defending us? Couldn't we get them in there somehow?)

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

(Well done. There's a lot of meaning behind the "hand-lettered sign" and the "figuring-it-out at kitchen tables." In fact, my husband and I did some of that just this morning. Both images illustrate one of the hallmarks of good poetry, which is saying a lot with a little.)

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.

(What on earth does that last line mean?)

In today’s sharp sparkle (very good), this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim
(suddenly I'm thinking about coffee), on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

by Elizabeth Alexander, Copyright 2009

It's not terrible. It's just not very good. And in fairness, to write a good Inaugural poem is probably one of the toughest writing tasks there is. The creative act owes much to one's inner muse--maybe Ms. Alexander's was indifferent to her deadline. But good music and art and poetry also have much to do with craft. I would have expected better from someone with the poetic and literary pedigree of Ms. Alexander.

And it appears that I'm not the only one.


Elephantschild said...

It tries too hard. And that's the death knell of most art.

Elephantschild said...

And she's not a very good reader, like you said.

Can you spot a rhythm or meter that she was trying to work within?

Michelle said...

I had to stop listening - it was so bad!

And what was funny was that my 8 year old (who has never really studied poetry...yet.) said, "Mom, she's not very good, is she?!"