"Praise Song for the Day" Reloaded (Attack of the Inaugural Poem)

9 years ago

With most Americans, I watched the inauguration ceremonies of President Barack Obama last Tuesday. At times I wept. At others, grinned like the Cheshire cat. And, being a poet, I paid attention to Elizabeth Alexander as she recited her poem "Praise Song for the Day," written for the inauguration. I paid attention, but knew I'd have to find the video and text, sit somewhere, and be still before forming an opinion.

Preparing to write this post, I sifted through critiques of the poem, most of them so negative that I considered entitling this post, "Why Y'all Be Hatin' on a Sister?" The content of the post would have been a list of review links with notations beside each link: He a hater; She a hater; Not a hater; Idiot; Look, it's a suck-up! (the last designation reserved for gushers who say things like, "It's a masterpiece, the best poem I've ever read in my life!")

In addition, I procrastinated on reading the reviews for a few days after I saw some of the firsts. I dreaded knowing too much because I'd want to tell it all, which is why I'm glad to have come across Joel Dias-Porter's blog. After you finish this post, if you want to dive deeper, he's your man.

Here's a taste of the kind of detailed analysis you'll find there.

Being familiar with her work, I know that Alexander is a poet of both great skill and care, thus it was not surprising to note that the poem is comprised of forty-three lines, loosely in iambic pentameter (mostly 9, 10, and 11 syllables) and arranged into 14 tercets, plus one final orphan line. That the body of the poem is 43 lines is no coincidence, since Alexander is smart enough to know that while Obama is the 44th President of these United States, he is the 43rd person to serve as such. This is due to Grover Cleveland serving two non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th Presidents. (Joel Dias-Porter)

This kind of detail fascinates me, but I know most people don't care about form, meter, couplets or tercets, significance of line count. While poets and critics debate whether "Praise Song for the Day" is a poem or prose, the average person is screaming from the corner, "Yeah, but what the hell did she mean?"

At Slate, Salon, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I've read comments like, "WTF?" or "That was not a poem." and "What was that, an Affirmative Action poem?" "Walt Whitman, she ain't."

Regina Hackett, art critic for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote:

The daily-life banality of her poem was disheartening, but that's not the real problem. Her delivery was flat. She sounded as if she were ordering pizza on the phone.

But that's not the problem either.

The problem is, by no stretch is her poem a poem at all. While as a stilted monologue it had a suggestion of lean appeal, far better than the greeting card goo Maya Angelou cranks out and insists on calling poetry, Alexander's effort is the product of a limited imagination, an academic approach to rhythm and an anorexic understanding of imagery. (Regina Hackett at SeattlePI.com)

Hackett's so wrong, but I applaud her for posting with her critique an example of what she considers to be a good poem, Rita Dove's "Exit," chosen at random, says Hackett. Critics quickly will tell you something is bad, but move as arthritic old men giving examples of what they call good.

Hackett voices a common complaint about Alexander's poem, its delivery. I think some people thought she should speak like Maya Angelou or be more like the poets at poetry slams, the kind you see on HBO's Def Jam. Some folks think a poet is only one thing, a spoken word performer like Sandra Kay, for instance, entertaining with mad dramatic skillz. Others think a poet is a British-sounding man in a coffee house, bemoaning lost love with lofty words.

And then there's the rhyming thing. Hackett understands poems can be poems and not rhyme, but many Americans still believe words are only poetry if they fall within the definition of poetry learned in elementary school--pretty turns of phrase in near-even lines, ending in rhyme.

Others, taking pride in being poetry connoisseurs, don't necessarily believe poems must rhyme, but still call Alexander a hack who writes not only poetry poorly but prose badly as well.

No Social Function:

I didn’t intend to belabor the awfulness of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem but my thoughts have returned to it as they do to an act of vandalism one witnesses in a public place. Millions of Americans, fear, will confuse Alexander’s platitudes and pieties with poetry. For many it will suffice as the only sanctioned poem they hear or read this year and perhaps until the next presidential inauguration. “Praise Song for the Day,” in fact, is not poetry but an inferior species of prose. It is what one expects from an earnest junior-high-school student with little gift for language, or from a professor at Yale. (Patrick Kurp)

I bet you didn't know the fate of poetry appreciation fell on the shoulders of one female professor and poet.

Here's a slap from City Journal: "Elizabeth Alexander manages to compose history's worst inaugural poem," an article by Stefan Kanter. Hater.

Really, Kanter, the worst in history? Kanter's hung up on grammatical structures and what he calls poorly parsed wording. For example, one cannot make music with a boom box, he hisses, someone turns it on and hears music others made.

I'm rubbing my temples at all the people who believe they are the only people who know what "true" poetry is. In reality, they are the reason so many people fear poetry and say they don't like it. So-called poetry experts make the average reader feel that no one can understand a poem other than residents of the ivory tower.

Reading these types of critiques over the last week, I perked up at Virgin Formica's approach to the inaugural poem:

Excerpt from "Things I Hated About the Inaugural Poem"

That there was no candy or baked goods in it
plus I fucking hate crochet white tights --
really cute, but they're bunching around my ankles
like a granny

That it treated me like a deadbeat who missed car payments
That the reason leftists are so sensitive is because
they’re LOSERS!!!
That there was not sufficient attention paid to the recent death
of Stooges' guitarist Ron Asheton

That metal rocker Lars Ulrich and Lars' dad Torben
and Lars' dad's wife Molly tried to pay $33.8 million
to see a fat guy and social loser
cruising on a Segway
pulling out of Gaza

That she's ushering in an era of someone trying to make
a somewhere of spoons
(Virgin Formica/Sharon Mesmer)

Mouthfuls of fun await in Formica's humor. Is she making fun of the poem or our reactions to the poem or both?

BookNinja thought the poem could have been better, but "felt sorry" for Alexander having to deliver the poem after President Obama's speech. It's hard to top his eloquence. Lots of people questioned the placement of the poem on the program. There's a reason for her speaking after President Obama, and I'll get to it shortly.

BookNinja didn't crucify Alexander, but he directed his readers to the poem "Forty Acres" written for Obama by Derek Walcott, a Nobel winner. I agree that "Forty Acres" is a beautiful poem with a richer texture than Alexander's, but it would have been inappropriate for the inauguration. The frame of "40 Acres" is culturally narrow and too focused on Obama as though he works alone.

Walcott's poem is a lovely gift, but not a poem in keeping with the spirit of the day nor Obama's sensibilities about not reminding America that he is the first black man to be president. He doesn't ever bring it up on his own, exudes the energy of I don't have to tell you I'm a black man. You've got eyes.

Some people liked Alexander's work, cut her some slack. Anika at WriteBlack thought the poem was accessible to the average person, but not lofty enough for the occasion. Catherine at Chicagoland didn't like the delivery, but otherwise found the poem acceptable, "It is everyday life as lyric poetry...literally."

Joel, whom I mentioned earlier, also gave a mostly favorable analysis and critique with literate context:

Given how difficult it is to write a great or even very good occasional poem, and given the gravity and historic nature of the occasion in question, I thought the poem was pretty good, but contained more than could be taken in at first hearing. The Malcolm X allusion "Say it Plain" I recognized right away and loved, as well as the allusions to the Bible "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and the aphorism taught to medical students "First do no harm", I knew that "Take no more than you need" was an allusion, but was unfamiliar with the source. (Joel Dias-Porter's Weblog)

Later he tells readers that "Take no more than you need" is a quote from the environmental sustainability movement. He also said that the poetic form Alexander uses, the praise song, is common in Africa, and is "... usually written in praise of people, living or dead. Thus a praise song for the occasion mimics the Sankofa bird, a way to look both backwards and forward simultaneously. A way to honor her heritage as 'griot' while also honoring a momentous event," writes Joel.

I didn't know that.

Another critic didn't write much but was right on the money for seeing the bigger picture, the poem in context of Obama's own poetic imagery and message.

Everyone has a comment on Elizabeth Alexander's poem today. Many have comments about her "performance" or lack of. I found everyone comparing her words to Whitman, Frost and Angelou. However, one name that was not mentioned was Gil Scott-Heron. First, Alexander's poem should be connected to the closing lines of Barack Obama's speech. Can we get a coda here? Obama quotes George Washington -and it seems like a Valley Forge moment. It's Winter in America. Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" echoes this: "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun." (Miller's blog)

You may read the text of Heron's song at Miller's blog or watch video of Gil Scott-Heron performing the song at this link, "Winter in America," which also has text.

Here is the portion of Obama's speech to which Miller refers:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. (full Obama text and video)

You may watch video of Elizabeth Alexander reciting her poem at WSATA, and here's the text:

Praise Song for the Day
By Elizabeth Alexander
(from the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack H. Obama. Text from Graywolf Press via the New York Times)

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. 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 pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light

My Take on "Praise Song for the Day"

First to tackle the placement of the poet after the President's inaugural address: Miller's assertion that the poem is like a coda to the president's speech is correct. Obama, as a former community organizer, an astute politician, and a word lover, understands the value of staying on message and knows how to convey his message, his word. (Elizabeth Alexander pictured right.)

The inauguration ceremonies were designed to motivate anyone watching to set aside division and experience the sense of being ushered into a new age of promise, to go from winter to spring, renewal. This is why the poem ends with our being "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp" of walking into the light of a higher love in the nation. Alexander defines this higher form of love clearly.

While many object to the poem, saying it is not a poem, "Praise Song for the Day" is poetry. Alexander plays with sound, rhythm, and imagery to convey what she means. The language is deceptive in its simplicity, as you may have already gathered reading quotes from Joel's blog. The poem has a density that is missed in the careless read. Certainly anyone critiquing this poem without having seen the correct typographical form as released by Graywolf Press does herself and the poet a disservice. Lines and line breaks may convey as much meaning as words. (The little publisher, Graywolf Press is being swamped with request for the poem, btw. So, somebody liked it.)

Not all presidents choose to have poetry at their inaugurations, but Obama had to have one. He believes the right words elevate the human spirit. It's no coincidence that Oscar winner Forest Whitaker delivered William Faulkner's quote about a poet's potential at the inaugural concert on the Sunday before Inauguration Tuesday:

The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. -- William Faulkner US novelist (1897 - 1962)

Faulkner's words but Obama's belief. Poetry, like its cousin, Music, moves people spiritually. You cannot skim a good poem, or listen one time and grasp its full meaning or receive its transformative power. Good poems are meditations, rewarding those who patiently contemplate their meaning. And when poems have a moral message, a lesson, the poet hopes it sticks.

Alexander followed Obama to echo his message, the word for his moment, in poetic compression. She tightly wove Obama's campaign narrative and his vision for this nation into "Praise Song for the Day." Let's look more closely.

One of the marks of election season was divisive language, provocation of ancient hatreds. Countering election ugliness, the theme of Obama's inauguration was "We are one." If you study Alexander's poem, you will see the theme division/repair, segregate/heal, isolate/embrace.

Throughout his campaign Obama said, "It's not about me. It's about you." Through his poet, he wanted us to hear that message again. It's not about him, it's about us. So begins Alexander's poem.

She opens with us distant, existing within the confines of cool civility, "walking past each other," seeing or not seeing--the signs of a disconnected people, and then --

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues

We notice the phrase "all about us" in the first line of the stanza not only because it's first, but also because it's repeated twice on the same line. Our lives are all about us and not in a good way.

We are individually insulated, bombarded by dissonant sound, the overwhelming number of messages we get each day around us. Who can hear a good, meaningful word/message when bombarded by bramble, thorn, and din? And so we are divided from each other, isolated with negative input.

And there is something else that divides us, the old ways of talking and thinking: we have "each one of our ancestors on our tongues."

Critics have been blowing this line away with the simplest of interpretations such as "we speak the way our parents spoke, from our different cultures." That's true of the line's surface meaning. Within the context of the stanza, however, having our ancestors on our tongues is also having another message in our minds that influences us, part of the noise. The message of our ancestors may be good or bad, but given that the other sounds that we suffer in stanza two are unpleasant, we must consider that having our ancestors on our tongues is not good.

For one thing, if we each speak the language of our ancestors, keep that on our tongues, we do not learn the language of "the other," the people not of our ancestors. America is a nation of diverse heritage. To get along we must cross the language divide.

And our ancestors leave other messages as well that hinder harmony: Don't talk to the people over the wall. We're not like them. Stay in your own backyard. Isolate and do not change.

Yet we know we must change, do things differently, because we look around and see items in need of repair. This is the third stanza, and everyone I've read gets that Alexander's showing different types of repair done by ordinary people. But this revelation that we see what needs to be repaired and work at it transforms the world around us.

We no longer hear noise, we hear music, organized sound, a beat a melody, moving through instruments and even the mechanism to make it louder. Our transformation began when we worked to save what could be saved, and it continued to move through us entering the hands that play the drums.

This harmonious spirit goes from our hands through more of the body, as the cello covers most of its master's body. And then we move beyond us to broadcast transformation--a boom box. We move sweet harmony to our mouths--the harmonica--and then we sing. Each of us has a voice that can make this music, a universal language. Perhaps you can't afford a cello but you have a voice.

Also, we see the different cultures reflected in music sources mentioned, another signal that music signifies harmony of people and purpose. We are journeying away from what splits us to what connects and heals us.

I especially like the next stanza. It represents hope propelling us forward--the waiting and anticipation of things to come. A woman and child wait for a bus--they're going some place. A farmer looks at the sky in anticipation of planting seed and seeing a harvest. A teacher teaches in expectation that students will learn. This teacher says take out your pencil and begin. A test is in progress.

Again it's Obama's message. We hope. We work for change. We know there'll be trials, but we're going to make it.

The poem then tells us the kind of test, a testing of our encounters. We may speak harshly or kindly, whisper in love or gossip. Declaim and move crowds to courage or desperation, which is why we have words to consider and reconsider. To pass this test, we need discernment and the ability to listen and speak wisely

In the following two stanzas, the poet has allusions to slavery, segregation, skilled and unskilled laborers, the ordinary people who built this country but who may not have seen a fair share for their labors. Why is this?

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said

Do you see what she's done so subtly with one word. Elsewhere in the poem the word "someone" is treated as we normally see it, but in this stanza it becomes "some one." Acting alone some one person signifies a selfish actor, this one who has marked a road so others may not cross to what is a better place. Then others, a group, not one, "said" ... Alexander is back to the power of words here. A larger group is being oppressed by an action, but begins the struggle to overcome with a statement, "I need" not I want, but "I need to see what's on the other side." They want a better life and move forward despite not knowing what's ahead.

After this point, Alexander takes us to church. She honors the dead who died for our freedom and the dead who worked hard to build the country but who did not see this day for which the poem is written, who built wondrous structures and were kept within their walls, unable to move beyond a servant or laborer's class, echoes of segregation, isolation, and continued injustice even for those who've worked hard.

The praise song for struggle, what went before, praise song for the day, the moment forward is a fairly obvious stanza. She said she would "say it plain." And I associate hand-lettered signs with protest of people who can't afford a sign painter, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables with not only families but also small community activists who can't afford board rooms. The poem is acknowledging the work of community organizers like Barack Obama and any ordinary person who has worked hard to make their communities and this nation better.

Moving on to how Alexander uses sound as a signal in poetry, I've read a couple of critics taking her to task for the following lines:

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

First, however, since I have these lines right here, I believe these lines may be the only allusion she has to Obama, a black man, going to the White House, which was built by slaves. Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and even Grandma Marion are the descendants of slaves, a people who could only work in the White House will now live in the White House.

Back to sound. Oh, how some reviewers hate that line ending in the word "of" as though poets are required to follow grammatical rules. It's a nice thing to do, but one of the benefits of having a good understanding of language rules is that you know how and when to break them for effect.

I'm annoyed at how many critics seem to assume Alexander doesn't know English well, that the awkward construction of that phrase is proof she is a sloppy writer, and yes, it's crossed my mind that some of them may assume she got her post at Yale by Affirmative Action, doesn't deserve it, and certainly doesn't deserve to be the inaugural poet.

However, if you're not just a critic, if you're someone who actually writes poetry and crafts poetry, you know a word like "of" jutting off the line in phrasing odd to the poetic ear must be there for a reason.

Alexander uses "of" as both a visual and aural cue to draw attention to the most important message/word, the one she says plain in her poem, "love." The word "of" rhymes with "love." Elementary school children know this.

The poet understand that the word "love" is one taken for granted. People gloss over this small word, skim its surface, assuming they know what it means. Tune it out because they associate any mention of love with dreaded sentimentality.

I can't tell you how many critics are blasting Alexander for even using the word "love," referring to the golden rule, etc. They say it's "so cliche." They're angry, declaring that we've all been let down by a preachy pseudo-poem, a message about walking into love's light, how banal.

What if the mightiest word is love?

Is love a cliche to be tossed aside? What if the word "love," represents a commitment to each other that's so strong that no one waste time focusing on wounds, that we can forgive and move onward, "no need to pre-empt grievance"? What if "love" is the most powerful word we have to help us face any coming trial, to endure and prevail?

Oh, these critics believe they are so smart, so intellectual thirsting for fresh language, they claim, and belittling the use of archetypes that unify by labeling them trite. I have a question for them, perhaps for us all, "If we're so damned smart and well-adjusted that we don't need to hear, listen to, or contemplate a message encouraging us to love better and walk into "love that cast a widening pool of light," why is the world still so effing effed up?"

Self-proclaimed "true" poets or poetry critics can be worse than political pundits, as fanatical as fundamentalist jack-leg preachers, and as snobby as Boston's old money. But you know what, I'm going to walk in light and love them just the same.

Finally, the poem that was a series of tercets, ends in a single line symbolizing those who began this journey only about self, split apart, are now one because they they've determined to walk to commit to something bigger than themselves.

Nordette is a BlogHer CE whose personal blog is WSATA.

If you want to read more detailed analysis of "Praise Song for the Day," I recommend Joel Dias-Porter's Weblog and E. Ethelbert Miller's analysis with Gil Scott-Heron's song.


Listen to Langston Hughes recite two poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "I, Too, Sing America"
I, Too, Sing America (text)
* Dr. Maya Angelou performing "On the Pulse of Morning" at former President Bill Clinton's first inauguration.
* A profile/interview on Elizabeth Alexander at National Post, "Elizabeth Alexander and the language of history"
* A review of Alexander's book of poetry, Body of Life

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