Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rhymes and Reasons

The poet Elizabeth Alexander met Barack Obama when both taught at the University of Chicago. Her family has a political history, her father having been Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission and her brother, Mark, an Obama advisor during the presidential campaign and transition. Though not widely known (what poets are, these days?), Alexander is highly respected in poetry circles and has received numerous awards for her work. Not surprising, then, that Obama invited her to write and deliver a poem at his inauguration.

Alexander is a scholar of African American culture and literature, currently a professor of African American Studies at Yale University. Her inauguration poem -- which can be found here -- takes its title "Praise Song for the Day" from an ancient African tradition, the praise song -- a lively form by which the lives of individuals are celebrated. She chose in this instance, though, to celebrate not Mr. Obama but the everyday American.

There's been much talk about "Praise Song" and its delivery, with The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and most critics panning the work as too prose-like and the delivery not up to snuff.

Writing for The Guardian, Carol Rumens – a poet herself – declares "Even when writing for a public occasion and a vast audience, the poet should be able to renew language by being precise, surprising, unhackneyed. Otherwise, what is the point of such a commission? Alexander is a true people's poet, but she has written better poems for the people than this one."

A little kinder was Eli Lehrer, a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who wrote for The Weekly Standard that it "doesn't qualify as a great poem, but it might emerge as an important one. As a celebration of the commonplace and an exaltation of the personal over the political, the poem offers a distinctly American take on the concept of occasional poetry." He decides that, "Yes, it's self-centered. Yes, the poem doesn't really have much logic. But it works."

"Praise Song" was not helped by Ms. Alexander's recitation of it at the inauguration, but it seems to me her words themselves were, while clumsy in part, appropriate for the day.

It was an occasion of plain speaking and common language. Mr. Obama's widely anticipated speech was itself not one of rhetorical delights and poetic flourishes; no lines he spoke are destined to be carved in granite on a monument or cast in bronze for the ages. But if they were to be, they would be set in bland Helvetica, the font chosen by those of whom it has been said, "they want to fit in and look normal. They use Helvetica because they want to be a member of the efficiency club."

What Obama said, beyond the words he spoke, was "See? I'm no elitist after all." That was something that needed saying to move the conversation from personality and ideological rhetoric to the hard work that needs doing and the hard choices we collectively face.

Also straight-talking at the ceremony was preacher and civil rights leader, Joseph Lowery, who brought some of his customary plain and common touch to the benediction. Dr. Lowery closed with his own bit of poetry derived from a refrain used by African American performers including the Almanac Singers of the 1940s and bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. One version of the much-borrowed rhyme goes like this:

If you're white, you're right.
If you're yellow, you're mellow.
If you're brown, stick around
But if you're black, stay back.

Dr. Lowery's take was a lot more hopeful: "help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right." After all the solemn talk of hard times behind us and ahead, Lowery's gentle and effervescent humor was much appreciated. He made the occasion no less serious, but a lot more human.

Perhaps by prearrangement, Alexander's poem seemed designed to keep with the tone of the moment. Its most telling phrase was "Say it plain." And that she did. And that may be part of the reason for disappointment among those of us who found "Praise Song" wanting as a work of poetry -- why Carol Rumens felt it failed to "renew language."

More at issue for me, though, was her delivery which, owing to its pomposity and self-importance, undermined her message of respect, esteem, and appreciation for the everyday experiences of common folk. She placed an artificial emphasis on words and phrases, making cumbersome what might have been elegant. She imposed white space around those words, seemingly to give them exaggerated weight. She made precious the little things she meant to declare only noteworthy. Perhaps she felt too much the historic significance of the day or worried that her words might seem, were they left unadorned by affectation, trivial.

I don't think she listened well to what her words had to say. Her expressions hadn't the brawn and sinew of Sandberg, yet she tried to stretch them tight and bulk them up with muscle they were far too frail to carry. They were as simple, though not as effortless, as the American colloquialism of Frost, but her plodding reading gave their realism a resonance of insincerity.

Poets ought never read aloud their own work – they've too much invested in it.

I nearly fell out of my chair on hearing Alexander orate so solemnly: "Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, / Others by first, do no harm or take no more / than you need." All I could think of was the cheesy sign at the King's Table Smorgasbord all-you-can-eat joint I frequented in college: "Take all you want, but eat all you take." That level, the ham-fisted inelegance of a cheap eatery's admonition against wasting its money, was unfortunately the low plane of much of "Praise Song for the Day."

I recall Robert Frost's reading at JFK's 1961 inauguration. Blinded by the glare of the sun and TelePrompTers not available, he could not read the poem ("Dedication") that he had written for the event, but recited his "The Gift Outright" from memory instead. It is a short poem, less than a third the length of Alexander's. It speaks about surrendering ourselves to the country, "Such as she was, such as she would become." It was a moving moment: an elderly, world-renowned and well-loved literary figure honoring a young man of "a new generation" who offered the nation new hope and vigor. Frost honored the nation, too, with humility and humanness and honesty.

Frost's "Dedication" has been called "dreadful" as poetry. But nonetheless it, or something like it, might have been a good choice for Obama's inauguration. In it, he speaks of "A turning point in modern history," and concludes declaring the start of "A golden age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday's the beginning hour."

Yeah; it even rhymed.