Why a poem . . . then, there? | Bleader

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why a poem . . . then, there?

Posted By on 01.21.09 at 01:12 PM

Elizabeth Alexander is being hammered for her contribution to yesterday's Inaugural -- the poem "Praise Song for the Day," which she read after Barack Obama spoke, and which -- if we're to judge by the TV shots of folks wandering off and by the critiques -- nobody was inspired by or even tried very hard to follow.

I certainly didn't. Good poetry isn't easy. Alexander's massive audience naturally assumed this was to be good poetry -- if it wasn't, why was it on the program? -- which meant it would have to be considered with some deliberate care for its virtues to unfold. I, for one, wasn't in the mood for that. My mind was on Obama's speech. An expert reading of an apposite poem I already knew by heart might have been nice, Even a reading of a new poem that we'd already had a few days to read by ourselves and reflect on might have worked. But poetry isn't something to be unveiled like the new Bud Light ads during the Superbowl. I listened to Alexander just long enough for her to show me she wasn't going to be able to save the day with a socko delivery, and then I, almost gratefully, tuned her out. Barack Obama seemed engrossed, but I bet he'd read "Praise Song for the Day" beforehand.

British correspondents sniffed. Wrote Carol Rumens of the Guardian: "'Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking,' Alexander begins: not a riveting start." Normally, a poem doesn't require a riveting start -- but it probably does if it's written to be delivered at the close of a long, cold, exhilarating morning of public ceremony.

And wrote Erica Wagner of the Times: "Praise Song for the Day was unmemorable. How do I know that for sure? Why, because I can’t remember it. Two minutes after it was spoken I couldn’t remember it."

In other words, Alexander's poem needed a catchy hook.

I suggest moving the poem forward in the inaugural program so it isn't such an anticlimax, and allowing and encouraging the public to get to know the poem ahead of time. Or we could turn the poetry reading over to the Hollywood star who raised the most money for the new president's campaign. Or we could drop it.

Way too late, the text of "Praise Song for the Day" is now publicly available. Here it is, courtesy of the New York Times. Alexander wrote a modest, gentle poem that understands the occasion it was written for but doesn't dress up for it. It works on its own terms. If the point was to awe the multitudes, she miscalculated.

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