Inaugural poem garners praise

WASHINGTON — With a measured and steady voice, Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 bookended President Barack Obama’s maiden presidential address on Tuesday with an inaugural message of her own — an occasional poem that called for national harmony and mutual compassion in response to a new era of American history.

Alexander recited her 341 word poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” on the steps of the nation’s Capitol immediately after Obama’s swearing-in and inaugural speech. While several Yale professors acknowledged the difficulty Alexander must have faced in writing a poem of such enormous national significance, they agreed that she delivered a poem worthy of the historic occasion.

Remarked John Rogers, director of undergraduate studies for the English Department: “It’s a beautiful psalm of praise, celebrating an extraordinary historical event by means of praising ordinariness, or the heroism of everyday life.”

The poem, which centered on the everyman experiences of the American dream, was wide in scope and subject matter: “All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues,” Alexander recited Tuesday.

TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW

Yet Alexander, following the biggest act of the day’s festivities, was overshadowed by Obama’s address. In the moments after Obama’s speech, inauguration-goers shouted chants and high-fived one another — effectively drowning out Alexander’s introduction. As some hurried to beat the crowds off of the National Mall, Alexander’s slow and steady words, clearly enunciated, took several seconds to quiet the boisterous crowds.

Though her poem was certainly steeped in the African-American literary tradition, Alexander said in an interview on Sunday she hoped to reach all Americans through her language. She praised Obama’s speeches for transcending race, while still drawing from the African-American rhetorical tradition. For her inaugural piece, Alexander, like Obama, resonated on different racial and cultural registers.

“This poem is coming from an African-American woman poet who is also an American poet, who also hopefully has something to say to those who are not within the American tradition,” Alexander said in the interview.

In fact, Alexander seemed to allude to Obama’s famed lofty rhetoric in the sixth stanza of the poem, where she stated, “We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.”

And in the second-to-last stanza of the poem, Alexander gave a nod to the frigid temperature — “today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air” — that kept spectators trembling throughout the inaugural proceedings.

As she came to a close, Alexander moved from the past to the present to the future: “praise song for walking forward in that light.”

While the enthusiasm of the throngs reached a climax during Obama’s speech, people clapped politely at the conclusion of Alexander’s poem — though it took several moments for them to recognize the conclusion, because Alexander gave no clear indication of when she had finished.

‘THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF THE TASK’

Not only did Alexander have to follow in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, but she also faced the challenge of providing words to capture the historical significance of a president who speaks poetically.

Rodney Reynolds ’10, who was a student of Alexander’s, said some students might find the delivery jarring, though he said she presented the musicality of the piece well — particularly given that she followed what he called “the greatest inauguration speech ever.”

The poem was always meant to stem from her personal and intimate understanding of American citizenship, an understanding steeped in her own experiences as a black woman writer, Alexander said in the interview.

“There’s beauty in the impossibility of the task,” she said. “You can’t speak to all those people, you can’t know what all these millions and millions will hear and find in your work.”

So, Alexander said, she preferred not to try. Instead, she attempted to use her inaugural poem to encapsulate the hopes and beliefs she had experienced in the aftermath of Obama’s historic victory in November.

“In a kind of paradox, that audience of millions and millions left me very free to listen to myself and simply hope that I can provide clarity,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s poem addressed the importance of humanity. Her idea to focus on the details of the lives of everyday people, she said, was inspired by the work of her greatest literary hero, Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American poet who wrote about life in South Side Chicago from the 1940s until her death in 2000. Alexander edited a 2005 anthology of Brooks’ work, “The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks,” and said Sunday that she attempted to emulate Brooks’ focus on community spirit in her inaugural poem.

One of the final stanzas of Alexander’s poem for Obama suggests simply, “What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.”

ENGLISH PROFESSORS REACT

Among students interviewed, the poem garnered mixed reviews. For example, while watching the poem, Dacie Thompson ’12 said she had a hard time following Alexander’s words but, on second reading, decided she liked the poem.

The reviewers, so far, are not overwhelmed: the Los Angeles Times called it “less than praiseworthy,” while the Chicago Tribune crticized the poem for being too “prosaic.

But for more than a dozen members of the English Department interviewed, Alexander’s poem served as a triumphant finale to an emotionally charged day for words.

“I heard, I wept, I took great pride,” English professor Leslie Brisman wrote in an e-mail message. “Elizabeth Alexander did most admirably in a particularly difficult genre. The poem makes us feel we are all heirs of those who have died so this day could come to be. Praise to her song for walking us forward in that light.”

The professors interviewed compared Alexander’s poem to past inaugural poems, such as those given by Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, and said it stands on equal ground both for its style and its meaning.

American Literature professor Robert Stepto, who said he has followed Alexander’s work since she was an undergraduate in the 1980s, described the poem as a guiding force forward in a new age: “a gifted voice can light the way,” as he put it.

Seeing Alexander’s poem as the culmination of years of American history, American literature professor Amy Brundage said Alexander’s poem spoke to the ability of humanity to alter itself.

“It reminds us of the way democracy in America is ideally the chance for all people to speak in the public sphere,” Brundage wrote in an e-mail message. “Alexander’s poem was both a beautiful instance of lyrical speech and a demonstration of how, in the years since the Civil Rights movement, our sense of American history, and what and who matters within it, who has a voice, has changed.”

Martine Powers reported from Washington, and Lawrence Gipson from New Haven. Reporting was contributed by Raymond Carlson and Esther Zuckerman.

Comments

  • An Idle Observer

    So that's what it meant. Most people I spoke to couldn't understand what she meant. I have found that this is typical of literature in general and poetry in particular: the more obtuse, the more brilliant it must be. Heaven forbid a member of academia should be seen scratching their head and muttering, "Now what the hell does that mean?'

  • T.R

    Please no more poets. It was awful and if anything very shallow. a "Boom Box?" how in touch much less relevent. Was it the President having to show everyone how smart and cultured he is? His speech was a better poem and just a such more in depth

  • Anonymous

    are you kidding? this was the worst poem ever!

  • Anonymous

    a bad poem read by a black woman is not automatically a good poem.

  • Townie

    Another rat leaving the sunk ship…I wonder how many more will be hired? Maybe Dubya can become a tenured poly sci prof. Just think of the Class of 68 bucks that'll roll in.

  • BenjaminL
  • Mugsy

    Wow!!! How impressive!!! I just can't get over it. She recognized the impossibility of it and, I'll be danged, SHE DID IT ANYWAY!!! I'm not sure what she did but the dopes in acadamia seem pleased, so it has to be a good thing, unless you're looking for something that has sense and meaning. Yahoo!!

  • lovespoetry

    Please do not pretend that Ms. Anderson's work is on par with Robert Frost's poetry!

  • oxy moron

    Thank goodness African American orators and preachers have kept American poetry alive, and that rappers have renewed it. That poem was an embarrassment. Sad. Next time, choose Will I. Am.

  • @#1, Mugsy, etc.

    On the contrary, I think it was pretty clear what the poem meant. That Americans perceive a non-existent wall between them and poetry is a disgrace. A nation that has lost its connection with literature can claim no relevant culture; a people unwilling to make an effort to think deeply or abstractly is a people with no voice. A rejection of literature is, ultimately, a rejection of the idea that the self matters, that identity matters. America cannot live up to the ideals Obama represents without the necessary appreciation for the profound connection between words and ideas, between ideas and actions. When you disparage "academics" or "the elite," when you say that being "smart" or "cultured" is a bad thing, when you celebrate idleness, you show disrespect for the learned of your country, for the world's most capable intellects across the centuries. There was a time when that would have meant disparaging Washington, Jefferson, Madison. Never forget that without an appreciation of ideas, there would never have been an America. You owe all your freedoms to the academics, the elite, the smart and the cultured; to people who spoke dead languages and appreciated literature, yes, even poetry.

    Alexander's poem will never appear in anthologies of great poetry--not even Frost's inaugural poem does, and he was a truly great poet--but the sentiments she expressed are sentiments that we should all take to heart.

  • Hieronymus

    Shakespeare? He's dead.

  • Hieronymus

    In fact, it's an insipid, not-as-good ripoff of Auden's Musee de Beaux Arts. Although Auden was talking of suffering, not success, he got the quotidian realities better than our own Ms. Alexander:

    …how it takes place
    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
    … there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood…

    [Amazing things take place]
    Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
    Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

    WAY better. GO AUDEN!

  • Hieronymus

    One more:

    "Others by first do no harm"

    Is it 50 million babies aborted now? I can't keep count…

    "or take no more than you need."

    Ah, communism… "to each according to his needs…"

    "What if the mightiest word love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light."

    Sounds like Jesus to ME!

    "-- praise song for walking forward in that light."

    Ms. Alexander is of an age where she should be aware that "Poltergeist" references should be carefully weighed.

  • Plebeian

    Sorry. It wasn't a very good poem at alll. Not nearly as bad as Maya Angelou's ode to political correctness at the 1993 Clinton inauguration, but not good.

  • congrats yale

    on hiring a war criminal

  • Anonymous

    George Patsourakos
    Yale is very fortunate that Ambassador John Negroponte has agreed to join its faculty in July, 2009 for at least three years. Negroponte has a wealth of experience in international affairs as well as in intelligence, having most recently served as America's deputy secretary of state. His unsurpassed practical experience will help to make him a superlative instructor in Yale's Studies in Grand Strategy seminar, as well as in international relations courses. Indeed, Yale students who take any of Negroponte's courses need to realize how lucky they are to have him as their instructor!

  • anonymous

    What a travesty of a poem. I cant believe I am paying 45000 to send my child to a school where a person writing such trite stuff is teaching. God help us.

  • jeff g

    WOW, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING PUTTING HER ON STAGE? THE AVERAGE AMERICAN READS ON A 9TH GRADE LEVEL AND THEY ALLOW HER TO SPEAK? BESIDES THAT THE POEM WAS HORRIBLE.I CAN'T IMAGINE SITTING IN HER CLASS FOR TWO HOURS. THEY SHOULD SEND THE PRISONERS FROM GUANTANAMO TOO HER CLASS FOR A SEMESTER.

  • Isa Mirza

    Come on guys. Many works of art are not appreciated at first glance or without a qualified eye. I was a student of Alexander's in her class on August Wilson. Her poems are beautiful. She has a way of employing a descriptive, narrative style that makes the eloquent seem prosaic. Its part of her style and its more unconventional than people give her credit for. I think her inaugural poem was powerful and a commentary on both African-American and also American history. I'd give it a second reading and stop comparing her to poets like Robert Frost, who has a qualitatively different and wholly incomparable style.

  • Alum

    Spare us, #16.

    That "poem" doesn't get better at the second or the third glance.

    I doubt that it will ever be included in an anthology of great poetry - even as a "powerful commentary on African-American history.".

  • @#17

    So are all poems that aren't "great" now automatically bad?

    This poem wasn't great; it wasn't bad. It ranges somewhere between mediocre and good in terms of stylistic sophistication. But in terms of evocative imagery, it has a lot more power than most of these commenters are giving it credit for.

  • Alum

    The "poem" was gawdawful and an embarrassment to Yale.

  • Anonymous

    To all the naysayers, you write a poem to be read at arguably the biggest inaugural event in our nation's history to be read in front of 2 million people. Ready to go up right after Obama's history-making speech?

    .

    .

    .

    Yup, didn't think so.

  • Anonymous

    The poem didn't clearly didn't meet expectations. I think it had a great message, but there's no denying the delivery was off, especially following Obama's poetic address. Give her a break.

    On an unrelated note, I agree with whoever said he should have chosen will.i.am.

    yes we did.

  • Anonymous

    I thank Jesus and his widening pool of light that Hieronymous never got into Yale.

  • Hieronymus

    That's H-I-E-R-O-N-Y-M-U-S, Einstein…

  • Anonymous

    Whatever, do you think anyone cares how you spell your ridiculous name? Get a job.

  • '10

    The only "praise" for this embarrassing effort came from the author's fellow members of the English Department at Yale. Observers elsewhere were virtually unanimous in being - shall we say - underwhelmed.