Thursday, January 22, 2009

More on Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day"

SINCE TWR'S POST ABOUT Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day," I've been fielding emails that say things like: "I disagree with you. I liked Alexander's poem."

I'm not sure why readers thought I disliked the poem. Even the part of my reading that appeared in the Times highlighted what I thought worked well.

For the record, I, too, liked the poem. It's a good poem--humble and quiet, elegant and introspective. Cadenced well and dotted with some lovely internal rhymes, the poem is more than competent. When she writes, "Say it plain," she's talking both to us and herself, giving us an indication of the work she wants her poem and her voice to do.

My main observation about the poem--and this is not a critique--is that it lacks ambition. To be sure, it's nearly impossible to write a poem commensurate with the spectacle and significance of a presidential inauguration. Especially this one. But, I would say that the poem didn't stretch as much as it might. It tried hard to be accessible and poetic at the same time, and it succeeded. Ultimately, it may have been more effective than memorable.

This would be in keeping with Alexander's writerly ego. It seems obvious to me that she did not want to detract from the importance of the event, to out rhetoric the new president, himself so poetic. She indicates as much in her funny interview with Steven Colbert:

Miller Williams' poem for the second Clinton inaugural has not emerged as a particularly memorable poem, though it was also a strong effort. We'll have to see if Alexander's poem rides the waves of history like his or Angelou's. What is most important, though, is that her poem, like Obama's speech, is call for action, attentiveness, and answerability. She did a great job of showing why poems can and should be part of America's political and cultural discourse.

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