A month after the presidential Inauguration, public opinion and commercial metrics still deem Elizabeth Alexander’s ’84 “Praise Song for the Day” a failure.
As the News reported Tuesday, the poem has only sold 6,000 copies. Graywolf Press, the poem’s publisher, originally printed 100,000 copies. “Praise Song” has sold even fewer copies than Maya Angelou’s 1993 inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which also debuted to mixed reviews.
Graywolf spokeswoman Mary Matze blames the economy for the poem’s lagging sales, but many in the blogosphere offer harsher opinions. On the CBS News Political Hotsheet blog, one commenter wrote that the poem was the “jewel in the crown of affirmative action,” the product of liberals who have deemed that “blackness is more important than brains and competance [sic].” (It should be noted that while accusing Alexander of incompetence, this individual misspelled competence). Like Obama, another said, the poem “quickly bores and alienates.”
Alexander appeared to be very uncomfortable reading the poem at the inauguration, and the crowds leaving the National Mall were uncomfortable hearing it. It is a poem meant for the page, full of mundane and uninspired imagery. And Adam Kirsch of The New Republic wrote on the magazine’s The Plank blog that Alexander’s verse was “bureaucratic.” Unlike the truly “public” verse of poets like Wordsworth and Lowell, Alexander’s poem was “spoken by no one and addressed to no one.”
Kirsch’s post was written and published the day of the Inauguration. His was a quick reaction to the banality of Alexander’s poem. But his analysis transcends Alexander’s moment: It is still relevant and will remain so.
Kirsch asserts that Alexander’s ability to claim an “establishment” position as an outsider has caused her to suffer from an “excessive self-consciousness about her role as a spokesman and example.” Poetry has historically been a white man’s game, and, as a respected black female poet, Alexander believes that she must set an example for minority (especially “double minority”) poets. Alexander’s poem wasn’t a searing indictment of Bush or an example of Obama-manic rhetoric, but Kirsch claims that she suffers from a hyper-consciousness about her role that forced her to write something worse: a mundane poem.
I believe Alexander wrote the inaugural poem while under a great deal of anxiety. At her Master’s Tea several weeks ago, she spoke of the gravity of the occasion. The poem is full of sober imagery, but it is not “bureaucratic.” It is common.
There is nothing wrong with being common. Obama’s campaign was effective because it was accessible to the common man. Any American, regardless of age, income, race, gender or education experience, could have been useful to the campaign at any point in the election cycle, and millions were. Invitations to help the campaign were sent directly to your inbox: Become a Precinct Captain! Submit Your Platform Ideas to the DNC! Become an Organizing Fellow! The Obama campaign maximized the grassroots model. Throughout the election cycle, voters controlled Obama’s success.
As a member of the “Bush Youth” (I spent my adolescence under his reign in Texas), I found the methods of the Obama campaign very appealing. I was a civically minded high school senior, and the opportunities to help were abundant and often very simple. In January 2008, the campaign provided me with a list of names and phone numbers from everyone in my voting precinct. Many people were not interested in hearing a detailed explanation of Texas’ complex primary/caucus system. But I did speak to quite a few people who did listen.
Alexander’s imagery is not insipid; it is accurate. Obama’s message of hope and change energized the people, but much of this energy was channeled into monotonous campaign work. Many grassroots volunteers did spend hours “figuring it out at kitchen tables” (if their local Obama offices could afford tables). My precinct convention was attended by 463 people and held in a freezing supermarket parking lot. At the state Senate district level, I spent 12 hours organizing an Obama delegation in a college gymnasium.
In the closing paragraph of his post, Kirsch argues that “[Alexander’s] poem’s argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity.” This is not a tragedy. Alexander’s words dissolved into the atmosphere, destined to travel home with the inauguration attendees.
A month later, her words may not linger, but that does not mean they were not important.
Kristen Wright is a freshman in Davenport College.