Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugaration Poem: The Poetics of Declamation

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, declamciĆ³n) 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.


Anonymous said...

Dirt is also accessible. It was to hearing, what a blind person finger painting with three colors is to seeing.

Bobby Byrd said...

FROM MY FRIEND JB BRYAN. I called him last night after getting a couple of emails moaning about Alexander's poem. Always a bit unsure of myself, I wondered if I had misheard. Here's what JB said:

PARSING THE POEM: when ms. alexander got up after mr. obama it seemed she had one of those moments i have often felt: "what the hell was i thinking to be doing this?" but i thought she pulled herself together and plowed forth with the poem she brought. hell or high water should be the poet's motto!

enclosed is the NYT link to The Opinionator. read the comments which show the full range of snobby attitude or outright derision toward poetry. one person thinks obama should have picked amiri baraka while others expected lofty flourish. most people i think simply found it boring. or that it confirmed why they don't like poetry, for whatever reason.

i liked it for the reasons i like the poetry i like-- it felt truthful and sincere. if it had been a pompous poem delivered with pretentious attitude then i would have recoiled. and fortunately it wasn't post-avant leaving people to scratch their heads while saying "huh?"

i ran across this from the Yale Daily


>>The poem was always meant to stem from her personal and intimate understanding of American citizenship, an understanding steeped in her own experiences as a black woman writer, Alexander said in the interview.

“There’s beauty in the impossibility of the task,” she said. “You can’t speak to all those people, you can’t know what all these millions and millions will hear and find in your work.”

So, Alexander said, she preferred not to try. Instead, she attempted to use her inaugural poem to encapsulate the hopes and beliefs she had experienced in the aftermath of Obama’s historic victory in November.

“In a kind of paradox, that audience of millions and millions left me very free to listen to myself and simply hope that I can provide clarity,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s poem addressed the importance of humanity. Her idea to focus on the details of the lives of everyday people, she said, was inspired by the work of her greatest literary hero, Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American poet who wrote about life in South Side Chicago from the 1940s until her death in 2000. Alexander edited a 2005 anthology of Brooks’ work, “The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks,” and said Sunday that she attempted to emulate Brooks’ focus on community spirit in her inaugural poem.

One of the final stanzas of Alexander’s poem for Obama suggests simply, “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 preempt grievance.” <<

providing clarity isn't easy. sheesh.

oh well, poets can't win.
maybe that is the true motto.

carolyn rhea drapes aka chacal la chaise said...

First, here is a link to the transcribed poem:


I was unable to hear her present the poem, but read it from the link. I then twittered a line important to me.

The line evokes a scene Quincy Jones recently described in a radio interview. He said that he and Oprah sat around the Obamas' kitchen table to discuss the possibility of his running for the presidency. Jones said the campaign truly began that day, "figuring it out at the kitchen table."


Bobby Byrd said...

From El Paso songwriter & poet Gene Keller via email;
If the poem is in the breath of expression, that part was saddening. And the writing of public poetry comes with lots of limitations. I'm happy because poetry was part of the conversation.

Anonymous said...

"Inauguration", that's all I have to say about it.