Do you remember the inaugural Poem?By Uche Ogbuji
January 21, 2009
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.
8 Comments copied from the archived TNB site »
Oh my gosh, Uche!
I thought I was the only one.
That poem wasn’t awful. OK – maybe not awful but the reading was just miserable to sit through. Quite possibly the worst poetry reading I’ve ever endured.
I’m so glad that I got to hear a poets take on it. Thanks, man.
Hey! Josie’s back!!! Funny, I thought of you (Josie) during that reading. I thought…ooo, I bet she’s squirming. Ha!
A few footnotes.
❧ 1993: The “first black president” (hey, never mind he’s white)
2009: The first black president (hey, never mind his Mom’s white)
And in between: the guy who “doesn’t care about black people” (never mind that he doesn’t seem to care about Americans regardless of tint).
I suppose two black women do make pretty pat bookends to all that.
❧ I didn’t read any criticism of Alexander’s poem. Not that I’ve taken a peek, it ooks pretty bad. It’s been called “uninspired”, “prosy”, “bureaucratic” and much worse. I must agree. ‘course the critics seemed to like Angelou’s poem, though, as you can tell, I disagreed.
❧ I found this:
“Alexander’s publisher, Graywolf Press is making the most of it. The small St. Paul, Minn., company, which is operated as a non-profit, is releasing a commemorative chapbook edition of the poem on Feb. 6, for $8. First printing: 100,000 copies.”—http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/books/blog/2009/01/obamas_inauguration_poem_the_c.html
They’d better be marketing it to actuaries or others of a similar swashbuckling nature.
The poem was actually nice. It was read in a choppy, unrhythmical, and unflowing manner which made it sound quite ugly. It was hard to focus on the words when they came out like machine gun bullets instead of like flowing water. I have heard other poets butcher their own work before. There is a gap between creating the words in the mind and having them come out of the mouth. Americans don’t know how to read poetry to enhance the beauty of the words.
This is an excellent post, Uche. I agree that poetry written for occasion is almost always a disappointment …
Well put, my friend. Since Obama is so gifted with words, and such a fine appreciator of the power of words, I had high hopes for the inaugural poem. Yet I, too, was sorely disappointed. Still, like our crumbling economy and the like, we’ve got a good four years to turn that all around.
I had a hunch you were feeling stabs of pain during this. (What? I’m a gemini – I hear a poem like this, I think through all the people who I associate with poetry, and I sort through the imagined reactions.) I have no idea whether that was a good poem or not – I couldn’t get past the way she read it. There was so much space between words that somebody could have read an entire other poem in the breaks in syncopation. As a poetry lover, I was disappointed. It was basically a list poem, right? It felt juvenile. Repetitious. And you had an excellent point – if it WAS so repetitious, how come so unmemorable?
Glad you wrote on this.
By the way, my favorite modern writer on language (appropriately, he’s a blogger) Geoff Nunberg has the best reflection I’ve seen on Obama’s speech. It’s not that I agree with everything Nunberg says (for example, I think antimetabole can still be “vessel of deep ideas” to the modern ear, and even the cited examples from McCain and H.R. Clinton worked), but it’s that Nunberg bases his points on basic, good sense, that’s unfortunately rare these days in discussions of language.
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