January 20, 2009

Review of the Barack Obama inaugural poem Praise Song for the Day written and read by Elizabeth Alexander

A review of the Barack Obama inaugural poem Praise Song for the Day written and read by Elizabeth Alexander.

In a word: mediocre. While I love a poem filled with descriptive images, Alexander chose unimaginative cliches to show America. She presented no nuance, no color, nothing that is more than a prosaic poem not fit for a high school talent contest.

She looked for meaning, then scraped it clean of impact and influence before committing her idea to paper.

Who or what is she praising? A day? The definition of praise here is uniformly unpointed, as a day has no power. If the day has power, then it becomes a god, with a kind of omnipotent power.

"A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."" So what? Farmers do that. Teachers do that. She neither tells us something new, nor gives us insight about their action.

Her attempt to summon the spirit of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman fails with, "Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks..." as her song has no notes.

She suggests, "Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."" Is she suggesting others do not want to live by that, living entirely selfishly? That's hardly an Obaminian thought.

"Love that casts a widening pool of light." Love, here, is a living entity, after she tries to explain what love looks like in vague terms.

Praise changes from a thing to an action, clunking on the ground as the listener hums the platonic, monotonous drumbeat, "On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light."

Her reading was blase, coming across like a faculty reading at a community college. She is no Robert Frost or Maya Angelou. Delivering her poem with a tone as cold as the Washington DC air she stood in, listeners suffered with an insipid interlude contrasting to Barack Obama's excellent vocal power. Each word comes out forced, reminding me of bad coffeehouse readings in college with Jack Kerouac groupies wish they were as deep as William Carlos Williams.

Listen below.

Read the poem here: Praise Song for the Day

Read Robert Frost's poem as read at John F Kennedy's inauguration.

~ The Gift Outright ~

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.


dadlak said...

Maybe she didn't want to show up Obama. If so, she succeeded.

Anonymous said...

The stilted, monotonous delivery, similar to a distracted first-grader attempted to read aloud, complimented the tediousness of the poem. About halfway through, we expected "See Spot run," to make its way into the word soup.

Brockeim said...

It was dreadful beyond politics. America lost a great opportunity to place poetry on the world stage. Sure, there could be no outshining on a day exalting Barack Obama, but her poem would have cringed even the least of oratory administrations.

Obama has bigger issues to worry about, and all criticism of the poetry is safely distanced from his aura.

Anonymous said...

I guess it makes sense that a lot of people didn't like her poem or her reading of it. In that sense, it certainly can be judged a "failure." I felt, however, that it was excellently suited to the times and to this presidency and am surprised that people who think about this don't see that. But, again, if no one saw it...then it didn't achieve that... If a tree falls in a forest and all that; no impact.

Brockeim said...

The theme was suited for the times. The poet was the wrong person to capture it, and the wrong person to deliver it. It felt as if she wanted to go plain-speak, like Robert Frost so capably did. She came off haughty, hyper-academic. That's not what Obama wants to promote.