Ought Congress to pass a law, banning the reading of official state poems at presidential inaugurations? Or should we instead use the ritual as a barometer with which to measure America’s cultural decline?
In “Something there is that doesn’t like an inauguration,” my friend Jim Bowman writes of inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, and a high-brow discussion of her merits in The New Republic (passages in quotes are from TNR),
For a thoughtful assessment, this commentary got off to a fatuous start? I think so.
“Obama’s inauguration was just the kind of event that might inspire genuine poetry: it was that rare moment when the public intersected with the private for good instead of evil.”
It’s about the dumbbell poem read at the grand event by Yalie Elizabeth Alexander, who is black, says Adam Kirsch in The New Republic blog, “The Plank.” She is? Could have fooled me.
“Her best poems–especially in her first, reputation-making book, The Venus Hottentot–do not accept that there is an antagonism between African-American ‘folk’ culture and ‘high’ culture.”
Reminds me of the woman sitting next to Winston Churchill at dinner who said she had decided to accept the universe. “By God, you’d better,” fumed Winnie. But this woman would rather not, apparently.
Kirsch likes her, but she
“suffers . . . from excessive self-consciousness about her role as spokesman and example. As she writes in ‘Ars Poetica #92: Marcus Garvey on Elocution’:
To realize I was trained for this,
Expected to speak out, to speak well.
To realize, my family believed
I would have words for others.
As Bowman puts it, with the proper pith about the “pedestrian” poet, “this lady reads like a telegram.”
In 1961, at JFK’s inauguration, Robert Frost read his 1942 poem, “The Gift Outright.”
The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, Still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely; realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
It’s a clunky affair, far from Frost’s best, but at least appropriate to the occasion.
Frost had been commissioned to write an original poem, but with the sun reflecting off the snow and onto his manuscript, the 86-year-old had been unable to read it, and instead recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. For the occasion, he had written, “Dedication.”
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country'd be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found….
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.
“Dedication” has its moments, but it too is forced. Perhaps this inaugural poem business is a minefield to be avoided by prudent poets. Still, Frost’s offering was Bard-like, compared to what would follow.
In 1993, we were subjected to “Inaugural Poem,” by that font of self-esteem, census-taker laureate Maya Angelou. I’ll spare my readers the entirety of Miss Angelou’s enormity:
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree….
And now, at the apogee of American progress, comes Elizabeth Alexander.
PRAISE SONG FOR THE DAY: A POEM FOR BARACK OBAMA’S PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION
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….
Can members of the public sue for pain and suffering, and for the misappropriation of taxpayer funds?
Alexander’s “poem” reminds me of the summer I spent teaching in a federally-financed, “Summer Youth Employment Program” for 14-16 year olds at a Chinese ethnic organization. I taught college in those days, usually remedial courses, though they were often given misleading names, with which to cheat the taxpayers (“developmental”), but that summer, I got the rocket scientists.
One girl of about 14 was a better writer than I was, and took me to task in class for inflicting an unnecessary comma on one of her essays. Before surrendering to her greater wisdom, I responded, “Someday, you’ll be on a talk show with your new bestseller, and complain about some writing teacher you once had, who inflicted unnecessary commas on your essays.”
A colleague got the remedial-level kids I usually taught. She was very popular, because she never corrected her students’ work. She had her kids write essays, but employed the ruse of telling them to insert a line break after every sentence. Voila! They had all written poems, and thus were all poets. And so it is with “PRAISE SONG FOR THE DAY: A POEM FOR BARACK OBAMA’S PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION.” Mind those caps; mind that length.
If “Obama” is “the nation’s orator,” does that make Alexander “the nation’s poet”?
It seems to me that this tenure-holder, Alexander—whom my wife also had not realized was an "African American"—is not a poet, but a professional role model and member of the Black School of Rhetorical Bombast. She doesn't know the difference between "iron" and "irony," though I'm sure she frequently abuses the term "ironic" to her audiences. To do justice to her inaugural essay would require satire.
Speaking of iron-filled prose, take a glance at her official autobiography:
Elizabeth Alexander is one of the most vital poets of her generation. She has published five books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year;” and, most recently, her first young adult collection (co-authored with Marilyn Nelson), Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008 Connecticut Book Award). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, ‘Diva Studies,’ was produced at the Yale School of Drama.
Alexander is a pivotal figure in American poetry. Her work echoes the inflections of earlier generations, as it foretells new artistic directions for her contemporaries as well as future poets. In several anthologies of American poetry, Alexander’s work concludes the twentieth century, while in others she serves as the inaugural poet for a new generation of twenty-first century voices. Her poems are included in dozens of collections and have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic and Bengali.
Professor Alexander is the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks, and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Bengali, indeed. Pity the poor Bangladeshis. Pity the poor trees!
I can appreciate the iron in this “Incoming Chair, [Yale] Department of African-American Studies” having received a fellowship for “improving race relations” and “further[ing] … Brown v. Board of Education.”