The inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander had one of the greatest audiences for poetry in the past 16 years or so, ever since Maya Angelou in 1993. It seeped over its huge audience just yesterday. Do you remember any of it? How about the opening?
“Praise song for the day.”
How about the opening two words? These were repeated several times in the poem as an unstructured refrain. I wonder if you remembered any of it, even those two leading words, by the time John Roberts misremembered the thirty-five words of the constitution’s presidential oath. If you didn’t, does it make you question the entire point of the inaugural poem?
Some critics have been complaining that Obama’s address didn’t soar to the remarkable heights for which he’s famous. Others reasonably respond that there’s too much serious business at hand for oratorical flights, now that campaign has matured into presidency. Both sides do seem to agree that some inspiration beyond the ordinary would have been useful salt for the audience in these hard times. How quickly it passes from notice that Elizabeth Alexander recited a poem less than an hour before Obama’s address. Do we all completely forget that poetry is supposed to inspire, to elevate, to transcend the ordinary?
You might say “poetry isn’t for regular people”. But how many times have you heard a rap lyric, a chant from a protest march, or something on Def Poetry Jam, that immediately stuck with you, remembered days later? I argue that the success of poetry can be measured precisely by how well it’s remembered by ordinary people.
I’d say putting on a poem was exactly what Obama needed to do, if only it could be the right poem. The insipid, academic inaugural poem of 2009 will go into the archives alongside the insipid, academic inaugural poem of 1993 (Angelou’s poem began “A Rock, A River, A Tree…” and meandered on from there). We’ve all found in between many other magic words more worth remembering.
That’s probably unfair; poetry written for occasion is almost always a disappointment, even in the hands of the greatest poets. I don’t know much of Alexander, but I was disappointed in 1993 because I believed that if politics warmed to a black female choice, Rita Dove would be far more likely to produce something memorable. But even Dove might well have crafted a duck. Maybe the most important role of such poems is indirect—a reminder of where we can find inspiration, rather than the stuff itself.
My own response to Alexander’s forgettable work was to find something more memorable to round out the moment. With a bit of my own effort, I got the fix I needed. And after all, isn’t that what Obama has always been about? We need to be more a culture of rolling up our sleeves and getting our own work done. I guess that applies to culture itself, as well.
With luck, that’s something we can all remember.
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