Elizabeth Alexander showed the entire nation just how impoverished American poetry has become. If anyone was unaware that our poets are often rewarded for flatness, slackness, and a regal disregard for the ears of their audience, they were sadly enlightened on Tuesday.
And I'm not impressed by the pleas for lenience I've been hearing. Aretha Franklin and Yo Yo Ma are artists, and they performed. They fulfilled expectations. Elizabeth Alexander was supposed to be on the same plane, but she was not. This is the paradox of American poetry today: it has become a profession, and it has become disgracefully unprofessional.
She had her work cut out for her. She even put in a stitch or two:
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.
This was the only relevant section in the entire poem! It's like Alexander was going along, tossing stuff out there, and then she thought: "What's really poetry-worthy about this occasion? That America has finally elected a black man to the presidency, that this resonates with our history--that it evokes our worst war and our most shameful crimes, but also our bravery, the bravery of individuals, the indestructible beauty of words uttered by Lincoln and King; that there is vindication here, that it is worthy and fitting to honor our ancestors who suffered so much--yeah, I guess you could look at it that way. I'll throw in a reference to that."
"Say it plain, that many have died for this day." This proposition should have been the heart of Alexander's poem; the beat and impulse of it. Instead, it was more like an awkward appendix. The poem should have been a musical but focused lyric, sure of its theme, disciplined in sticking to it, conscientious as a good movie about setups and payoffs. Instead, it languished under poetic pork and earmarks. And as for meter...
What depressed me most about "Praise song for the day" was the revelation that it was not meant to be free verse. It was supposed to be iambic pentameter. The transcript looked like this, but the formal print version looks like this. If you read the latter carefully, you can see the pentameter; but the rhythm was hardly perceptible in performance. The meter is just a shape, not a sound. One news source described it as "free verse iambic pentameter," which is like saying "crimson green" or "Chardonnay ale"--but unfortunately accurate.
And any poet who writes a line like "Love that casts a widening pool of light" for a powerful politician should be ritually expelled from the College of Bards. Finis.
Now, as to the inevitable challenge: "Why don't you try it and see how easy it is?" I was actually starting to take notes for my own effort, but frankly I have not been inclined to praise Obama even obliquely and in jest since he restored government funding for abortions in foreign countries. My last comment on this little affair: the poet and the president deserve each other. But I'd rather listen to Alexander's poetry all day long than hear some of the news that is coming from Washington now.