Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Guest Posting: A Review of Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song"

Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent Jeff Charis-Carlson risks his reputation as a generous reader and publisher of "good bad poetry" by giving Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem a chilly but not Frosty reception.

I really wanted to like Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration." After all, I’ve been working for three years to encourage local poets to find a broader audience and to comment more directly on the events of the day.

I’m even very forgiving with the poetry that I print on the Press-Citizen’s Opinion page. I’ve been known to occasionally print some poetry that is just "bad," but most of it has lived up to the "good bad poetry" aesthetic my collaborators and I have been cultivating. (Some even might even qualify as “good good poetry.”)

On top of that, I’ve spent far too long on a dissertation about novels and stories set in Washington, D.C. — which means that I’ve forced myself to read a whole lot of bad fiction and to learn to appreciate when it’s bad in new and interesting ways.

But even I lost interest as Alexander read her poem. I can appreciate the difficulty that she was under — the occasional poem is a hard form for literary poets to master — but I found nothing sonorous and very little memorable about the reading. And, because Alexander was following Barack Obama’s speech, she really needed something that came across as more than just prosy — something that would have given people the words they needed to sear the day’s events into their memories.

The closest she came was in her now most quoted line, "Say it plain: That many have died for this day." If Alexander had sent me the poem to edit, I would have suggested that she start with that line and then take her own advice by "(saying) it plain" throughout the rest of the poem.

Maybe Alexander, a professor at Yale, was simply the wrong choice for an inaugural poet.

Maybe Obama should have found a poet — like Maya Angelou or Robert Frost — who had much more experience viewing himself or herself as part of a broader audience.

Or, maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon, and Alexander’s "Praise Song for the Day" will go down in history as a great inaugural poem and will serve as an exemplar for occasional verse for decades to come. After all, the poem is be released as an $8 paperback, 32 pages, on Feb. 6, and its publisher, Graywolf Press, has announced a 100,000 first printing.

But I’d be surprised if it does. And I’d be more surprised if “Praise Song for the Day” manages to outsell its main competition, Angelou’s "On the Pulse of the Morning," which became a million seller after it was recited in 1993 at Bill Clinton’s inaugural.

Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, did a great rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

Jeff Charis-Carlson writes from Iowa City, IA, where he serves as the Opinion page editor of The Press-Citizen which regularly prints verse commentary about the day's news. Check out Charis-Carlson's piece on the advantages and disadvantages of publishing newspaper poetry at The Masthead. On Inauguration Day, the P-C ran its own inaugural poem, "Yes, We Can," by former Iowa poet laureate Marvin Bell.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you in wishing she had "said it plain," and in fact I don't like that line from her poem because it calls attention to how much she is not saying it plain.

As a single consumer weighing in, I do own Angelou's inaugural poem chapbook; I don't expect to purchase Alexander's.

I love the work you're doing with the Press-Citizen, and I'm very pleased I found this blog entry pointing to Marvin Bell's superior poem.

Unknown said...

Here here. It would've been nice to see a nonpoet or a parapoet address the audience; someone like Toni Morrison or Christopher Hitchens.

SusanF said...

I too was disappointed...there was no central point...maybe that was the point..
but it didn't work for the occasion.
I think it had wonderful pieces to it, but needs to cohere.
I hate saying this. I wish Obama would have picked someone else.

I don't hate saying that I am glad to find your blog. I was raised In Iowa and attended the University in the 60s, and have such fond memories...