Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum.

Wow, the inaugural poem was not as terrible as I expected it to be. It was still incredibly dull. But there was potential for hilarious and orotund badness! Oh well. Maybe next time.

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.

Adam Kirsch
Steven Colbert
The Guardian


Santiago said...

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.

Sort of. Didn't you hear about how it was a pre-recorded performance and they were faking it?

I wake up to talk radio, and on the day after the inauguration, the talk radio host -- he's local, I don't know his name -- was making fun of Alexander by writing his own inaugural poems --one of them was about his lawnmower, if I remember correctly-- which he posted on the internet to rave reviews. And then he goes, "Why didn't Obama just have Jay Z go up there and read something?" And it's true. Jay Z and a lot of rappers --i.e., people who know how to rhyme-- were sitting in the front section. I seriously would pay money to know what Jay Z thought of Alexander's poem. Too bad no journalist was clever enough to ask.

Who else would you have picked, instead of Alexander? Christian Wiman? Billy Collins would at least have been funny.

Meredith said...

Sort of. Didn't you hear about how it was a pre-recorded performance and they were faking it?

Yeah... after I wrote the post. I probably should have gone back and changed that judgment, but I'm too lazy. Still, at least the recording showed a performer's foresight on the part of Yo Yo Ma. I know how cranky a stringed instrument can get in freezing weather, and I can see why he wouldn't want to expose a good cello to that (it probably had fickle gut strings to boot).

I heard about the Jay-Z idea. I thought it would have been fun. There are also lots of slam poets out there who would probably have killed for the chance to do it. But the thing is, Obama chose this academic poet for a reason. His admin. is going to foster Culture. A rapper or a slam poet would have been declasse.

I think Billy Collins could have done a good job. But I would have picked... hmmm... maybe Rhina Espaillat. Or Rose Kelleher. They both write good metrical stuff. Espaillat is black, if that was an important factor. But like Obama, she doesn't have deep roots in the African-American community. She was born in the Dominican Republic and came to America in the 30's.

But mostly she's just a good poet who would have written something that the Average Joe would recognize as a poem.

Santiago said...

Espaillat would indeed have been a good choice. Never heard of Kelleher, though.

Last night I spoke with a cellist friend of mine about Yo-Yogate, and she said that her quartet has it in their contract that they won't play outside if it gets colder than 60 degrees F. So I guess we can give Ma & Co. a pass.

True that about "Culture." This is all an echo of Kennedy: first time tragedy, second time farce. Frost the Prophet to Alexander the Tenured.

Then again, say I, who would be lucky to get a tenured job in the next ten years, the way the market's going...

But not totally, actually: Unlike Kennedy, Obama actually wrote his books. Maybe he has better taste in writers than we know? He said he likes Roth -- or Bellow, one of the two.

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