Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I planned to stay quiet on the inaugural poem and wait for the nasty discussion to simmer down, but I'm disturbed. What is wrong with people? First of all, the inauguration wasn't about poetry, prayers, Yo Yo Ma or Aretha's big ass bow, it was about setting the new tone for the incoming administration and our country. Second, commissioned art is never the height of artistic achievement. There are parameters that each artistic contribution needed to fall into -- parameters in cases like these override the art itself. Every participant in the ceremony played his/her role in furthering the incoming administration's message. Each participant was selected because Obama knew their work and envisioned them demonstrating a part to symbolize this message. Each played a supporting role in this ceremony to celebrate this change of power. Ceremonies symbolize.

So who cares if he didn't pick your poet. Or that the poet he did pick didn't write a poem in your preferred style. Or that poem or the presentation wasn't "dazzling" enough or didn't rhyme or was too plain or included a cliche or whatever your personal beef. I understand the dismay against the selection of Rick Warren, he's (very recently) hurt people, played an active role in the removal of people's rights. That selection was both a contradiction (everyone being equal) and example (including everyone, even those you disagree with) of the administration's message. At the very least, I can understand how some would be personally wounded and feel betrayed by that selection. My initial reaction upon hearing of Warren's selection was "well, that's a dick move." I later softened and figured hey, let the open hypocrite participate too, he'll be exposed and maybe humbled and maybe this is small step towards unifying and entering tolerance into the collective consciousness. I'm not trying to convince anyone one way or the other on that -- if you're hurt and offended, I empathize and am not suggesting you feel any other way.

But where is this personal venom coming from against our inaugural poet and poem? Are people in the music industry bitching that Obama should have picked Patti Labelle or Faith Hill or that guy from Coldplay? Are they up in arms at the selection of Yo Yo Ma? I kinda doubt it. This grotesque pettiness goes back to poets fighting over that tiny crumb of a pie. Poets, forget the fucking pie already! I promise you, it's stale and flavorless. If you ever get a bite, you'll still be as empty as your are now.

As for all this nonsense about this being Poetry's big chance -- um, no it wasn't, it wasn't supposed to be and get over your self-centered, personal profiteering selves. Elizabeth Alexander did not go up there to be a representative of poets. She accepted an invitation, a daunting and frightening honor that I cannot conceive of having the bravery to accept. Putting oneself and one's poem out there, knowing full well the scrutiny both you and your poem will endure, most would shirk. When Alexander took the podium, momentarily paused before she read, when she looked out at that massive (departing) crowd, I wanted nothing more that to jump into my television and give her a hug.

I heard several different poets bemoan "Oh gee, now everyone is going to think that contemporary poetry is boring." Well I hate to break it to you, everybody already thinks that and no poem or poet, no million dollar poetry foundation or advertisement in Good Housekeeping is ever going to change general opinion. People come to poetry, not the other way around. If you want to reach more people, study filmmaking or write TV sitcom scripts. When Diane Feinstein announced that next up was a poem, 1.5 million of the 2 million audience started high stepping it out of there, before Alexander spoke a single word. If the classical music came after the swearing in, most of those same people would have left then too. More probably would have stuck around to hear Aretha, cause she's a celebrity and she sings songs you can dance to.

I understand why poets are interested in discussing the poem aspect of the inauguration. I am too. What I don't understand where the animosity is stemming. Seems like the whole point of the ceremony was completely lost on some. How quickly and readily some are willing to piss all over the place, even a brand new, long-awaited place.


At 6:21 PM, Blogger DeadMule said...

Wow, Reb. You make me glad I know you (well, I sorta know you). Point being, everything you said here is true. The whole theme of the inauguration was unity. No wonder people think poets are looney. Poets attacking poets is no way to popularize poetry. And on a Day of National Renewal and Reconciliation (by executive order from President Obama) no less!

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Adam Deutsch said...

Considering my local AM station that broadcast the event decided to immediately talk about the speech, I missed the poem. They even made it a point to say "That in the background is the poet...." I thought that kinda sucked. But I haven't given the actual poem much thought yet.

Excellent points, Reb.

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Matt Walker said...

Heh, "That in the background is the poet...." Story of our lives, eh? But I like it that way. And I like this post very much.

At 4:19 AM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

Thanks, Reb, for pointing out the absurdity of the criticisms of EA and her poem. I enjoyed the poem, myself, both as she read it and when I saw it with its correct lineation on Mark Doty's blog.

As you correctly point out, contemporary poets don't stand a chance when reading their work before or after politicians or preachers. But I also noticed that both Obama and Lowery are not shy of being *orators*, while EA (like just about any contemporary poet who might have accepted the gig) completely avoids anything "oratorical" in her presentation.

It made me wonder how the poem might have sounded if read by someone experienced in public oratory. I think it would have held its ground much better then.

That's not EA's fault, of course; the miniscule audience for contemporary poetry is quite shy of oratory.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Jeannine said...

Here's why I was disappointed: it was an opportunity for one poet, and one poet only, to show people that poetry wasn't boring. And she made it...boring. Crime against poetry, baby.
My opinion. And I'm entitled to it, no?
It was just so sad to have this great time for poetry to be in the spotlight, then watch the (non-poetry-oriented people) around me shrug and say, "That wasn't a great poem. Where was the imagery?" A wasted chance for something...

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm totally with you, Reb. Alexander was damned no matter what she wrote... someone was gonna bitch about it. And that's the most unfortunate realization for me.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this. I am so tired of bitterness.

"Poets, forget the fucking pie already! I promise you, it's stale and flavorless. If you ever get a bite, you'll still be as empty as your are now."



At 3:56 PM, Blogger Collin Kelley said...

Amen, Sister Reb. The criticism of the poet and the poem seems to be way out of line. The more I read the poem, the more I like. Alexander is coming to Emory in a few weeks to read and I will be there with bells on and a copy of the inaugural poem in my hand for her to sign.

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Rachel Mallino said...

Amen is right. I was disgusted to see so many posts and articles by fellow poets ripping her presentation and poem apart, and it only comes across, to me, that once more most poets are complete assholes. We talk so much about poetry being the silent art and then whenever an opportunity arises, talk down about all of it.

ugh, I wish people would get a real grip.

Instead, let's be happy about the opportunity. I thought she did fine - I liked the poem for its intended audience and her slow delivery was just fine for me.

Thanks for this post, Reb.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger Matthew Schmeer said...

I'm inclined to agree with Reb on the general issue about the state of poetry, etc., but graphically agree with Jeannine on this particular poem. See photo here.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

The poem and the reading were both pretty poor (though doomed regardless by the idiotic post-Obama placement in the program). I do think, though, that a lot of the complaining of the "x would have been better, y would have been better, *I* would have been better" is laughable. Your pet choice would have sucked in that time slot too, and everyone would have left, and everyone would have woken up the next morning still not giving a shit about poetry. If the organizers wanted something for people to gawk at, I just wish they'd gotten a flaming chainsaw juggler or freakshow contortionist instead.

At 8:52 PM, Blogger cornshake said...

holy cats--THANK YOU for this I couldn't agree with you more!!! Amen to the AMEN!

At 10:41 PM, Blogger Jim Mall said...

I found the delivery pretentious, the concept rambling and disconnected, and the over all style trite and academic. I am not nuts about poetry in general, but mostly because so much of it suffers from some of these same weaknesses. Aretha was fab, her hat was great, the Yo Yo Ma etc. moving and appropriate. I wept through most of the festivities, relieved that help had finally arrived, and thrilled by the love pulsing from that crowd of Americans at last freed from the disgusting reign of the Bushists. The poem helped to calm me down, bringing me back to earth in its unworthiness to the occasion. Not the President's fault, certainly, nor his responsibility. I do not expect of this brilliant man a refined sense of aesthetics, but I do believe that we gotta call them like we see em.

At 2:41 AM, Blogger Denny said...

If you read the poem carefully, and properly, it is really quite wonderful, IMHO. Many many poets do not read their own work well in front of small audiences. Elizabeth had to read her poem in front of 2 million people, and a brand new President Obama, in the freezing cold. She is a wonderful, smart, talented poet and does not deserve to have anyone criticize her who has not been in her position. Read the poem carefully (outloud), buy her books, study her work. Otherwise you will have missed a good thing.
Denny Stein

At 4:49 AM, Blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

I read this poem with my Poetry Workshop class last night; we looked at both the version with the correct line breaks and spacing and the version as it appeared earlier, in more of a prose poem form. My students were split in which they found more appealing.

But all of the students who had seen Alexander read it agreed that they appreciated it more once they'd had a chance to see it on paper and talk about it.

I find myself returning to her images and pondering them. The more I read it, the more I appreciate it.

At 11:33 AM, Blogger Kelli Russell Agodon - Book of Kells said...


This is exactly how I've been feeling but haven't known how to put it.

I wanted to give her a hug too.

*People come to poetry, not the other way around.* Exactly! It wasn't a day of recruitment, it was a celebration for the new president. That's it.

Thanks for this. Best post I've read about the inaugural poem yet!


At 11:45 AM, Blogger Jim Mall said...

Let's try that again.
Posted to

This poem sounds like a class exercise. It is trite, inappropriate to the occasion, broken and disjointed. It was also read in a stilted and pretentious manner, with cadences and emphases adjusted to imply more depth than the words themselves conveyed.
Many apologists, mostly poetry teachers, are now defending the poem by use of the dopey explanation, "It's better than it sounds"! They are counseling careful readings and study of the piece, so that we unenlightened boobs can come to understand it. Had it been written for readers rather than a live audience it should have been printed up in a run of two million and handed out to this crowd of Americans who came to be witnesses to a moving and meaningful spectacle of the country's best and brightest - for real, this time. The time slot could then have been filled by a recording of Ray Charles singing "America". I would still be crying.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger T. said...

Bravo! Agreed! Thanks for posting!

At 3:33 PM, Blogger Collin Kelley said...

Jim, if you think you can do better, why don't you have at it?

At 6:16 PM, Blogger K. said...

I'm married to a poet. I've been to a few readings with her, all in front of "crowds" of 20-40. Some readers were better than others; none would make me or anyone else forget about Laurence Olivier any time soon. The recordings I've heard of great poets reading their own work are typically dull affairs, and this is someone reading into a microphone under no pressure at all. Elizabeth Alexander read in front of millions of people. She likely had instructions to read in a certain way. Until you've walked a mile in her shoes...

It seem to me that the poem was squarely in African-American artistic tradition of Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence: Discovery of the transcendent by the use of plain language and everyday objects. The poem wasn't radical or an artistic breakthrough, but it didn't come out of nowhere, either.

BTW, I'm willing to bet that not one single person on the Mall turned to his or her neighbor and asked where the imagery was.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

you said: "Oh gee, now everyone is going to think that contemporary poetry is boring." Well I hate to break it to you, everybody already thinks that"

I laughed out loud at that. You are so right. Thanks for posting this. I've been staying out of the sour grapes argument because that is all it is: sour grapes. I can't stand that contemporary poets are so petty, competitive and eat their young. Why? Why do we do this? I refuse to join that nastiness. EA's poem was exactly what it was supposed to be.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

i think it was all a lot of hoopla, and as a musician I love hoopla- it helps me pay my bills-

On a programming note- I would have scheduled Aretha just before the last preacher. She's a big draw and would keep people in their seats-

just a thought.

OBTW- I LOVED her hat- small by church lady standards around here, tho.

At 11:21 PM, Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

In the comments K says he's listened to famous poets reading and (paraphrasing) they were pretty awful. Indeed!

I didn't like the way Elizabeth Alexander read. Each. Word. As. Though. She. Were. Stepping. Upon. Widely. Separated. Islands. But the words were okay and, heck, it coulda bin worse! Lotsa poets read in a weird affected poetry voice that makes the words almost unintelligible. I bet Alexander could've benefited from having a speech coach. But whatever. I thought it was neat having her up there. I was at work and could only half listen but I heard phrases that pleased me.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Jim Mall said...

A few thoughts on all of this lie within the bookstore blog of Ravenswood Used Books in Chicago. Flame them if you want to. They can take it.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger vmh said...

People come to poetry, not the other way around.

Yes, and yes.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger the professor said...

And less and less people come to poetry simply because, in the spotlight, it continues it's drollness in the eyes of the public.

Poetry is taught less, experienced less, and cared for less...and that is a damned shame. Though I actually appreciate and enjoyed Alexander's poem, her reading is a damned shame.

And to ignore the fact that her reading was affected, if not by nerves then by some kind of foolish belief that the music is on laboring over every syllable, is silly.

Poetry is supposed to have a musicality to it -- or it used to. But so many poets don't care about that, or at least it seems that way to one such writer.

And apparently some people think that poetry is not meant to be read (Jim Mall's post) as well, then that is just plain ignorance.

I agree that there is too much vitriol, self-promotion, and inbred attacks --but Alexander could have read it in natural rhythm, as I am sure she heard it differently in her mind, as I read it on the page. I'd have been happier with a nervousness in her voice than with the monotone of her address.

As a teacher, it was disheartening to find students even more disenchanted with poetry than they had been. So, for me, it's less about "other poets" and more about poetry as a DOA art that apparently some poets are okay with as is.

I am not crying for any particular aesthetic, but for the art form. It's sad that in your own thoughtful response, and in some replies, poetry is for cynics and only a select few.

In a time when the President's inspired verse is "Yes we can" you are doing the same thing as those people trashing Alexander as a whole, being "realistic" about poetry's place in American culture, rather than having any hope or belief that no art form is static and can be revived.

Luckily, "Yes we can" is a romantic sentiment the country is starting to believe.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Matt Walker said...

"And less and less people come to poetry simply because, in the spotlight, it continues it's drollness in the eyes of the public."

Um, "droll" means funny or witty. Is that really the word you were looking for, professor?

At 6:47 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Very well said.

You've laid out exactly why I think this is all ridiculous. That, and poems written for political occasions have a universally dismal record of being not the greatest poetry. Ever. Period. Poets have ridiculously high expectations sometimes. Not everything is, or should be, High Art.

Then again, it takes a bunch of poets to argue about nothing at all, ennit? So, some sour grapes will no doubt continue to flow.

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Steve Halle said...

"Second, commissioned art is never the height of artistic achievement."

Not true. Most pre-Romantic or pre-Industrial art of note was commissioned by patrons, often occasional, and more often than not, pretty fab. The works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, etc. are all examples. Perhaps you should add the word "contemporary" into your sentence or change "never" to "often"--it undermines the whole argument because I could only think of how fallacious that comment was as I read through.

As an American, I fully embrace Alexander's right to inhale violently and others' right to ignore her, embrace her, or be publicly upset about her suckage. The inauguration is the only reason she's even a blip on the national poetic radar and mine. I will presently go back to not knowing she exists.

At 8:20 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

what a great post. i found you from a link on collin kelley's blog. my head must be under a rock or something, because i didn't even KNOW about all the brouhaha around this poem/poet. you are so right that these "commissioned" poems are the hardest to write -- i've done two wedding poems on request now, and god knows the audiences for those were smaller than what alexander had to contend with.

but this remark just cracked me up:

"I heard several different poets bemoan "Oh gee, now everyone is going to think that contemporary poetry is boring." Well I hate to break it to you, everybody already thinks that..."

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Charles said...

"This grotesque pettiness goes back to poets fighting over that tiny crumb of a pie. Poets, forget the fucking pie already! I promise you, it's stale and flavorless. If you ever get a bite, you'll still be as empty as your are now."

Hells yes.

At 3:40 AM, Blogger giveitaname said...

She reads like Barack dances.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the poetry. Yet, aren't you being just a little hypocritical? It seems that way when you defend Alexander and bash Warren in the same breath. You conflate two issues that couldn't be more disparate.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger mama bee said...

Hey Reb,

As I was listening to the poem I was wishing I could ask you what you thought of it. I wasn't (and I'm still not) sure what I think of it. But then again, I'm just one of those normal people who doesn't write poetry (and, honestly, doesn't read much either.)

But, I think that this post is exactly what I wanted to hear from you, not just an analysis. So, thanks.

At 9:36 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Dear! Just visit: to read a popular poem on Obama-' The Tiger Woods Of American Politics. The poem has potential to give a life-long inspiration to every one of us. What a class poem! Compare now with inaugural Poem- Praise Song of the day...

At 4:30 PM, Blogger Mark On The Mall said...

Announcing The First Annual
Elizabeth Alexander Inaugural
Poetry Workshop!

With Ol' Abe and the Potomic in view
make IT prosaic at best and imbued
with no verve,tang or Langston Hughes
but with 8 million in print, a cruise
to the Caribbean, a poetaster's lot
and a coconut upside your workshop
addled head, courtesy Derek Wolcott.


Post a Comment

<< Home