Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inauguration Poem

Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem for President Barack Obama, Praise Song for the Day, is already being torn apart by other poets for its simplicity and her delivery. Cut her some slack, people. You try getting up in front of millions and reciting a poem written to order that tries to encompass the magnitude of the day. Here is the transcript of the poem from The New York Times. UPDATE: Thanks to Mark Doty and Peter Pereira for posting the true formatting, which I've now inserted below. The more I read it, the more I love it. 

Praise Song For the Day
by Elizabeth Alexander

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.

28 comments:

DeadMule said...

I thought she captured the spirit of Obama's promise to the American people very well. Why criticize another's prominence and success, as though there's only enough for a few? The whole point is, come together, and we can face anything.

Donna said...

Thanks, honey. I thought it was fine. Simple, but I loved what she said. Had her reading been different, I think there would be less criticism. Silly, really. Always something negative to be said.

stacebro said...

I wouldn't have wanted that job, as I think it's a nearly impossible task. But what would have been a better way of doing it, in my opinion, would be to have a call for poems from people across the country and select the one that best encapsulated the day. And then let that person--young, old, academic or plumber--take the stage. A much more Whitman-esque version of poetic democracy.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think mostly it's a problem of delivery, a weak delivery compounded by constrast with Obama's quite nice oratory. I have to say, though, that generally I don't care for how poems are "read" nowadays, in what I mentally think of as "William Hurt cadence"... Hurt's acting voice - sounding.as.though.every.word.has.a.period.between.it - has always sounded really pretentious and unnatural to me.

In the case of reading poetry, I know the "intent" is to convey the musical quality of the poetic form, but usually it sounds as though it's being read for people taking dictation or transcripts, or stupid people... very slow and emphatic, with lots of pauses.

As far as an inaugural poem goes, that's certainly not the time for a very "clever" or "academic" poem - simplicity and honesty is called for. It's just unfortunate that she didn't drop the pretentious "poetry reading" delivery.

Rupert said...

I thought it was excellent, moving, cut from the same cloth as the moment - Michelle's face (and even the girls') reflected the words as they were spoken . . . poets can be cannibals, we all know that

Collin Kelley said...

I didn't find her delivery pretentious. I'm pretty sure she lost her place in the text once and she was speaking slowly to make sure everyone could hear her on the other side of the National Mall.

Everyone here in my office, who are not poets, thought it was lovely. And I think that's the point. Alexander was speaking to the people -- the vast majority who are not poets and don't read poetry. To have her and poetry included in this amazing day is what's important.

Let's cherish the day.

January said...

Amen. Can't even begin to imagine reading in front of such a large, non-poetry audience. She was trying to be inclusive and speak to everyday people. I thought she did a nice job.

I think I read that Graywolf is publishing the poem as a chapbook, available Feb 10.

Montgomery Maxton said...

Talk about a poetry reading with standing room only!!!

Praise her for getting up there in front of the whole fucking world and reading her work. I would've bailed at the last minute. LOL

I thought it was a good poem that anyone could understand. I like the lines "picked the cotton and lettuce" and "what if the mightiest word is love."

Anonymous said...

Well, since you asked for opinions here's mine: I truly appreciated Ms. Alexander's words. The pictures she paints. The simple beauty of her message. As a published writer and lover of poetry I was at the edge of my seat, rooting her on. I want others to fall in love w/ poetry, too. I waited...and waited...to ride along the rhythm and cadence of her words. Unfortunately, "it" didn't happen. Her delivery didn't do the poem justice, IMHO.

--ECM, California

Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to write a few drafts of what's loosely in my head right now as "Praise Song for Elizabeth Alexander" :-)

I actually loved how she incorporated that reference and included everyday folks in her poem & found her poem refreshingly NOT pretentious.
:-)kareng

Collin Kelley said...

Amen to that Karen G. :)

mgushuedc said...

It was a daunting task, and I thought she represented American poetry very well. Frankly, writing to any occasion is a tough job these days. Now, it wasn't the greatest poem ever. But if you look at the other inaugural poems, it more than holds up. I do wish she'd been crazily inspired and taken a bigger risk. But, I can't think of any "public occasion" poem that actually does that. So big props out to Elizabeth Alexander (I blogged it live over at Vrzhu--hope it didn't sound too harsh).

Radish King said...

I loved it. She wasn't pretentious one bit (ahem, Maya Angelou with her Rock crying out and dinosaur poo) and what people forget I think, is that occasional poems are different than poems written for so and so's journal. Brava for Elizabeth and bravo for poetry being read during this inauguration.

Rebecca

christine said...

I agree with Dead Mule's comment. I thought her delivery was just fine. At first it looked like she would cry, and I thought she was trying to keep it together. I know I had tears in my eyes during Barack's speech. And I liked the poem. She obviously wanted to write something that would resonate with a wide number of people. And anyway, there was a poem before they had a prayer. Amen to that.

Tilt Press said...

I thought she did just fine and Michelle Obama looked extremely engaged the entire time. To critique her "delivery" is a bit absurd, unless of course, you've stood in front of millions of people and read a poem of your own.

I know that personally, I was delighted by the poem and appreciated the slow and determined delivery.

Rochelle said...

i actually like every line in the poem except "inside of," which sounds a bit awkward. i think part of the problem is that she's reading after obama--and even though obama isn't a poet, his speech has a rhythmical, mesmerizing quality.

Premium T. said...

She not only stood in front of millions of people in DC, she stood in front of the world. When has a poet had a bigger audience? Bravo to Elizabeth Alexander for producing a beautiful and accessible piece of work.

Liz said...

Congrats again, America! I enjoyed the poem and her reading of it ...well done on all counts!

sam of the ten thousand things said...

I liked the poem a great deal. The language is a direct and very real approach. Alexander's delivery was slow and in the moment. I thought it worked well.

Maggie May said...

my husband (not a poet or writer) really hated the delivery, and i told him the same thing you thought, Collin, which was her delivery was probably based on trying to deliver across such an enormous space and audience.
i like the poem a lot more on paper than hearing her speak it though.

Emily Lloyd said...

Hmm. Well, while I won't bother tearing into it, because I don't feel that strongly negative about it, I will say that I truly didn't like the poem one bit (though I have liked others of Alexander's). I thought the images were flat, some even cliched. Seeing the poem here--the poem wouldn't even make a strong blog post, imho. I know bloggers who write much stronger (just as clear and unpretentious, but more interesting and memorable and observant and engaging) blog posts daily. I'm not saying the thing needed to sound even *remotely* like a poem in such-&-such journal. I am saying it needed to sound good. Yes, it's a huge task--but it's also a huge honor, to be taken seriously. It's hard to imagine EA not being able to come up with something better, unless she was just too daunted by the hugeness to perform. In which case, she should have declined. Am I saying, faced with such a huge task, that I could've done better? Hell yes. And so could you, and you, and you, and you, and you.

Collin Kelley said...

Well, Emily, all I can say to that is -- proove it. :)

Lisa Allender said...

I thought Ms. Alexander did a credible job. I cannot imagine how nerve-wracking that would be--millions & millions watching!! I loved the phrase:
"Take out your pencils. Begin."
That simple, seemingly unrelated phrase, linked to the new-ness, the beginning-ness of this brand new day!

Emily Lloyd said...

LOL. I think I must, now. Do like it better with its true lineation, which I couldn't hear in the reading of it, but still find it wholly unremarkable. :)

jeannine said...

Maybe it's the supervillainess in me coming out, Emily, but I second your opinion. I've really liked other poems by Elizabeth. But not this one.
I also liked the idea, listed above, that Obama might choose a poem sent in from all quarters. More democratic, and they probably would have ended up with a better poem...

Radish King said...

I guess I'm of the opinion of the big SO WHAT. I think it's terrific that poetry and music were there in whatever form. I don't like most poems I read or (even worse!) hear read. But sometimes poetry is invited as a guest and whether we like it or not is not the point. Is it great poetry? Does that matter? Are we so hungry to rip and tear and *ahem* critique, that this woman's poem must float in our workshop mentality like a bug in oil? Okay, that analogy sucks, but I just read an article in the soon to be history Seattle PI slamming the poem. So what? Poetry was present. It was a huge occasion. Go ahead and write your better poem then read it in front of 2 billion people. Jeeze louise. This is why I think the interwebs have ruined modern poetry.

Rupert said...

lol, Radisher -
Internets killed the poetry star
Internets killed the poetry star
We fry our minds to break a line
We can't go back, we've gone too far . . .

and there's a second stanza rhyming Praise Song w schlong . . . but nevermind ;)

christine said...

It's so interesting how the comments here are so positive, while those on One Poet's Notes are so bitter! Thanks for the tip on the Feb. 11 reading. I'd be in poetry Siberia without you, Collin.

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