Anyone still remember Elizabeth Alexander’s performance at the Obama inaugural?
AFTER BARACK OBAMA was sworn in, Elizabeth Alexander read her “Praise Song for the Day.” I hesitate to call it a poem because it had so little connection to poetry as that art has been understood for centuries, indeed millennia. It was so dismal that the New York Times, in its 30-page special section the next day (“Full coverage of the inauguration of the 44th president”), failed to mention Alexander or print her poem. It had all the fizz of a week-old soda. No mention of it in the Washington Post either. What a decline there has been since Robert Frost’s performance at Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Alexander’s turn at the podium reminded me of those dull recitations that Garrison Keillor sometimes allows on his radio program. His designated poets speak their lines in a deliberately unemphatic voice, as devoid of energy and enthusiasm as the lines themselves are of poetry. But the audience always delivers its dutiful round of applause. We have been brainwashed into thinking that it is our civic responsibility to admire anyone who comes before us as a poet.
Maybe the time has come for us to form our own judgments, and blow a raspberry or two when absolutely necessary?
I’m surprised that Keillor clutters up his program in this way. He has good taste in so many respects. He can hold your interest with any story he tells, and mockery of intellectual pretension is his stock in trade. Perhaps it has something to do with his running gag about English majors. Many modern poets are employed by EngLit departments so maybe they’re all listening in to “A Prairie Home Companion” on Saturday night, waiting to see who gets Keillor’s nod.
How did Ms. Alexander become Barack’s pet poet? Political connections helped; political correctness was a given. Let’s call her QuotaPoet and drop all mention of laureates from now on. Congress created a “poet laureate” position in 1986, but the whole notion of laurels is at cross-purposes with modern poetry.
Not that Alexander is the laureate, yet. She is the daughter of Clifford Alexander, Secretary of the Army under President Carter. Her mother teaches African American women’s history at George Washington University. (Do they have men teaching men’s history?) Alexander herself met Barack Obama at the University of Chicago. No surprise, she is a professor of African American Studies at Yale.
Ms. Alexander and her ilk dwell in the sheltered world of Poetry Corner, a subset of the Academy. It is awash in more fellowships, honors, awards, grants, subsidies, and prizes than you can imagine. And don’t ask about the workshops. Joseph Epstein, in his great essay “Who Killed Poetry?” (Commentary, 1988), quotes Kingsley Amis as saying that everything that has gone wrong with the world since World War II can be summed up in the word “workshop.” In London, years ago, I heard Bernard Levin say much the same thing.
Alexander’s poem was criticized for not rising to the occasion, and of course it did not. Adam Kirsch in the New Republic called it “a perfect kind of bureaucratic verse.” But he meant that as a back-handed compliment. The “praetorian pomp” of Obama’s inauguration seemed “more redolent of Caesar than George Washington.” So she brought everything down to earth.
Nonetheless, Kirsch added, “it was just the kind of event that might inspire genuine poetry.” But didn’t, obviously. The Times reported before the inauguration that Alexander was wondering how to start a piece that will “mark an occasion as historic, has a worldwide audience and will have an immediate impact.”
Well, here is how she started it—her opening lines:
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other,
catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
That could hardly be more wooden. A critic with the L.A Times further commented: “Each day we go about our business” was “a strange sentiment for an occasion that on so many levels was not about business as usual.”
Spot on. But the more basic point is that today’s academic poetry is not about celebrating occasions or celebrating anything. It has a different agenda. It wages an undeclared war against the whole idea of poetry as it has traditionally been understood. It’s a lightweight steamroller that would like to flatten the monuments of the past. We can ignore it, but it’s not up to any good.
ALEXANDER HAS SAID that “music is the point” of poetry, and “the way I dive in is through music and language itself.” OK, but the problem is that her lines showed her ear to be in thrall to the anti-music of the modern. Consider this line. She is eulogizing the dead, who, among other things,