Friday, January 23, 2009
The text of Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem (and a mini-review)
All This Is That National Affairs Editor
Why would I review a poem, instead of Jack? Because immediately following the Democratic Convention, Jack hectored the transition team with sample poems, bottles of Washington Cabernet Sauvignon bundled with Theo Chocolates, pleas, outright lies, donations, flattery, and schmaltz. . .all in hopes of snagging the poet slot at the inauguration.
Jack knew his chances were slim at best, and if anyone from the transition team went so far as to check his blog, or actually read his work, well, then:::::::::::::pffffft!
He didn't relent until the day in December the team named Elizabeth Alexander as the Inaugural Bard. In short, I am reviewing the poem because it would be sour grapes for Jack Brummet, and besides he is perhaps even more pathetic a reviewer than me.
Alexander chose the form of an African praise song. "These traditionally celebrate the life of an individual, giving their name, genealogy, totem animal, job, personal attributes, etc." These songs are done in a call-and-response/trading fours style. I've read some cool ones.
To use this old form was a great idea. It could have been a raucous, rhythmic, densely worded, and colorful celebration of America and change. As it turned out, Elizabeth Alexander's inauguration poem was a snoozer.
Walking is a dominant image, and probably the appropriate one, since BHO often talks about the journey, the path, and the road. But to make walking a central concept, walking needs to be more than plodding (for a celebration of walking listen to Guy Clark's recent "Walking Man").
The poem has virtually no wordplay or deep images. It is depressingly prosaic. Alexander ends at least one verse with a preposition (of). The rhythms are flabby. It's like a poem written for people who don't much like poetry, so why bother to change their minds? The almost random, but hopeful and kaleidoscopic view of America is nearly devoid of music. All that said, her heart was in the right place.
Most occasional poems are weak. Why would this be an exception? Alexander has written many a better poem. It had to be a tough writing job, and lord knows how many constraints she was working under! Here's the text. What do you think?
Praise Song for the Day
A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration
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.