I was very much impressed with Obama's speech--its style and eloquence and toughness and inclusiveness--(George Bush should have climbed under his chair during the new president's litanies of difficulties the country and world faces) but I'll let the talking heads do their thing. I do want to congratulate Elizabeth Alexander for her poem "Praise Song for the Day." It was the 4th occasion for a poem to be written for, and recited at, the inaugaration of a president. I didn't look forward to it at all. Sixteen years ago I had gritted my teeth when I heard Maya Angelou's poem (I like Maya Angelou, I just didn't like her poem), and I don't even remember Miller Williams' poem. All I remember about the Frost poem is that he didn't read the poem he wrote which, by all acounts, was a blessing. Angelou had overworked her poem, made it too sentimental, too (for lack of a better word) "poetic." It was praised at the time, I thought, because it filled the common and sentimental notion of what poetry is supposed to do. Elizabeth Alexander's poem was plain-spoken and local and ordinary (if I might use that word in a good sense), and as such, it fit in with the inclusive mood of the day and of Obama's speech (so much different from when Bush was inaugarated, sans even the hint of poetry). The poem felt very democratic, rooted in everyday experiences, and it made me feel good and it allowed me to feel American. And I like the understated way she read her poem. I was delighted and happy. Besides, how daunting a task to read a recently composed poem to millions of people and a humongous television audience, especially after such a speech from the new president celebrated for his eloquence. I thought she did very well. Bravo.
(Please note that I write this without reading the poem on the page. Somebody did send us a copy a person had written out quickly, listening to it over and over again, without appropriate line breaks, etcetera. I didn't pay any attention to that because I wanted to write something from having only heard the poem. I wanted my response to be to the spoken text.)
The poetics of public poetry is a different animal from our usual sense of poetry in this country. Public poetry, especially "declamation" (or, in Spanish, declamción) is a much more common form of poetic expression in Latin America. I remember a friend, who was in Nicaragua during the revolution, telling me that at dinners all sorts of people would stand up and declaim their feelings for the revolution, their land and country. Walt Whitman (Song of Myself) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) were both wonderfully comfortable declaiming to us all, but of course neither of them would be allowed near a presidential podium. El chuco poet Ricardo Sanchez was also known for his declamatory poems, especially his improvisation riffs. Angelou tried, but fell short, but it certainly didn't hurt her in the marketplace. Meanwhile, Lee told me that teachers on a Young Adult literature listserv that she monitors were already sniping at Alexander's poem because of its plain-spokeness. They wanted something more "poetic." I'll be interested in reading what others say about Alexander's poem during the weeks that come. Ron Silliman's blog certainly will be jumping. I recommend all students of poetry to pay some attention to his blog, especially the comments, to follow the discussion.