Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem

I think there is something weird about Adam Kirsch's response to the poem Elizabeth Alexander composed & read for the Inauguration yesterday, but I can't say I find the poem very interesting. That is, I find something 0ff-putting in Kirsch's tone, but I can't disagree with his evaluation of Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day." The Rev. Joseph Lowrey was, on the day, a better poet than Alexander. Kirsch does name the central problem -- poetry's relation to power. It is the mark of modernity & certainly of post-modernity that will not allow poetry to serve political power, at least not directly, or well. Isn't it interesting that the prayer, as a form, is more flexible & able to accommodate shifts between the formal & the demotic than the poem on this occasion? Kirsch writes that "the poet's place is not on the platform but in the crowd." I agree, but I think he doesn't fully acknowledge the contradictory situation in which Alexander found herself, stuck in an impossible position between two demands, each of which negates the other. I was also struck by the difference in delivery. The postmodern American poet must eschew anything that smacks of oratory -- any of the sort of rhetoric that refuses irony -- for irony is the surrounding condition of post-modernity. Of all the post-Frost inaugural poems, I'd say Miller Williams' is the most successful. It comes closest to being down in the crowd, not up above it, to extend Kirsch's conceit. Frost, of course, was unable -- in the wind & glare -- to read the bad poem, "Dedication," that he had written for the occasion, but was saved by memory & read "The Gift Outright," as good a poem for such a ceremony as it's possible to imagine:

The land was ours before we were the land's. She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England's, still colonials, Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more possessed. Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender. Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become. Note: Here is another discussion of Alexander's poem, by Carol Rumens, in The Guardian.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem”

  1. I had the same thought about oratory while listening to Alexander right after Obama, even before Lowery. Lowery’s oratorical skills confirmed it: there’s probably not a single serious American poet today who could read with that kind of oratorical power; or rather, there’s probably not a single serious American poet today who is TRULY interested in aiming at that kind of rhetorical power (whether experimental or formal, old or young, black or white, gay or straight, whatever).

  2. Oh, and I posted the comment before I made my second observation: somewhere, I heard or read someone referring to Lowery’s speech who said all the rhymed stuff (or at least the opening rhymes) was quoted from “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. I’m sure my parents (old Civil Rights folks) would have recognized that immediately; I did not!

  3. don’t work up interest in official poetry.
    that’s coffled to current received opinion/garbed shining uplift w/goody-two-shoes labeling.

    at best it can be innocuous struggle speaking importantly —

    as if just language itself ever could fill a numb center. this is futile —

    as if rhetoric that can be judged as one might a high sermon.

    a homily or a lyric or a tirade would be more to the point and not an ornamental gate to filigreed sacred script.

    edward mycue

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