She is only the fourth poet in American history to share her verse at a presidential inauguration. Elizabeth Alexander wrote Praise Song for the Day to celebrate the swearing in of her friend, and former University of Chicago colleague, Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.
But in the world of poetry, Jan. 20, 2009, is more likely to be remembered as the poetry reading with the largest audience in global history. The new president responded to Alexander’s poem with clear pleasure, but among her millions of other listeners reaction was more mixed.
Within hours of Alexander’s reading, the Internet was buzzing with both praise songs and harsh criticism of the poem, which is being published by Graywolf Press this week.
As might be expected, politics entered into the controversy. Obama supporters tend to praise Alexander’s poem without citing specific passages. Obama detractors, on the other hand, are more likely to quote from the text, sometimes attributing nefarious socialist ideology to words as ambiguous as the pronoun “we.” Interestingly – few, pro or con – bothered to judge the value of Alexander’s poem in light of previous inaugural poetry.
Former US poet laureate Billy Collins noted before the inauguration about Alexander’s challenge, “I don’t envy her. Such poems are nearly impossible to bring off.” Collins attributed the challenge of a successful inauguration poem to “the heaviness of the subject.”
Instead, he recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” opening with the regal-sounding “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The poem narrates the New England founding of the United States, wholly appropriate to President Kennedy, if less so to non-New Englanders.
President Clinton invited two different poets to mark his inaugurations, Miller Williams from the University of Arkansas, and the poet-memoirist, Maya Angelou.
Miller’s “Of History and Hope” began in a less “high-sounding, poetic” tone than Frost’s, with “We have memorized America/how it was born....” Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” also started with direct, everyday language, but language sharply, rhythmically stressed: “A Rock. A River. A Tree/ Hosts to species long departed.”
All three poets projected a vision of America’s future, with Frost’s poem conservatively envisioning a country that would continue to evolve from its New England roots. For Miller and Angelou, the America of the future was a land full of unimaginably hopeful possibilities of freedom and justice.
Alexander’s poem was more in the style of Miller and Angelou. It risked being the most plainspoken and uneventful-sounding of inaugural poems by opening with “Each day we go about our business/ walking past each other.”
Then it transitioned into images of an America of all colors, ethnicities, and occupations, hard at work:
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
These working images closed with:
A teacher says, “Take out your pencils.
Alexander’s critics objected that this pedestrian utterance was not worthy of a poem for such an auspicious State occasion. Others, including some teachers, found the image fitting. The US is symbolically beginning to “write a new chapter” with the inauguration of a president.
Midway through the poem’s fifteen stanzas, a very simple point is made: “I know there’s something better down the road.”
Listeners familiar with African-American blues will hear a resonance with similar wording in numerous songs. That stanza concluded with an idea found in earlier inaugural poems by Miller and Angelou, “We walk into that which we cannot yet see.”
Some might argue that Alexander’s poem should have stopped at this point. I might concur.
The remainder of the work repeated the assertion that this poem is a “praise song,” evoking ancient African poetic songs performed to herald a new leader. Unfortunately, Alexander’s poem risked cliché with “What if the mightiest word is love?” an idea perhaps far better amplified in much poetry from ages past.
But Alexander’s poem deserves repeated readings. It is not a poem to be fully appreciated in a single televised hearing. Flawless? No. The most inclusive and hopeful of all inauguration poems? Resoundingly, yes.
Norman Weinstein is a contributor to the Monitor’s Arts and Culture section.