Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

I've spent most of the day dropping in on poetry blogs and listening to what the poets are saying about Elizabeth Alexander. She's the poet that Obama chose to write and deliver the inauguration poem yesterday.

Some of the poets felt that Alexander did the best she could given that there were a couple billion people listening to her who would rather have been eating grass than thinking about a poem, and some of the non-poets liked the poem because they felt you didn't need a dictionary and a PhD in modern poetics to understand the poem, but most of the reviews were pretty negative.

They felt that the poem's language was flat, it wasn't musical, it had too many cliches, there was too much needless repetition, and she wasn't a very good reader.

I don't think it was all that bad. In fact there were some passages that were downright moving.

What I think the poem needed was some pruning. She needed to run it through a couple more revisions.

Let me show you what I mean. First, I'll post her poem, and then I'll post a slimmed down version of it.

Here's her poem:

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.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. 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 pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

__

If you've read all of that, you probably agree with me that it doesn't have the kind of intense condensing that we see in the best poems.

But there is a poem here. My old creative writing teacher at the U of I in Chicago (Paul Carroll) would have said, "the whole poem is in the last 6 three line stanzas. Cut out everything else and throw it away!" And I think he would have been right:

Here's what she should have read:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. 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 pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.

_________

There's an interesting discussion of the poem going on at Edward Byrne's poetry blog.

Also, Sharon Mesmer (author of the very funny Annoying Diabetic Bitch) just posted a funny poem at her blog called Things I Hate about the Inaugural Poem.

6 comments:

Barbara said...

Thanks for the printed copy. It reads so much better in print than from the hearing. It was good to have all the inclusions and well expressed Obama's philosophy.

Your revision cut out too much, John. The inclusiveness was what I liked.

Sharon Mesmer said...

Your revision was WAY better, JG. I can't remember one thing from her poem. Oh wait -- somebody was waiting for a bus?

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Barbara, I went back to the poem and you're right. I did cut out too much. The stanzas about working and the bramble and the thorn were probably keepers.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Sharon, Thanks for the praise for my version of the praise song.

But like I said to Barbara above I'm feeling less certain about it.

This is probably why I never get involved with revising my own stuff. The indecision is crippling, like a broken down bus.

Wait! Does that make sense? Are broken down buses crippling, and how do you spell busses? And why am I talking about buses/busses?

Urkat said...

Her poem was prosaic and the metre halting. I've heard and read so much like it, it was hard not to let my eyes glaze over as I tried to stay awake long enough to hear her say something profound, funny, or inspirational.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I think you're on the right track. It definitely needs to lose some of itself and gain thereby.