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Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day"

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Elizabeth Alexander and Obama

Elizabeth Alexander and Obama

Introduction and Text of "Praise Song for the Day"

On January 20, 2009, at the history-making inauguration of the 44th Occupier of the Oval Office, Barack Hussein Obama, Yale English professor, Elizabeth Alexander, delivered her piece, "Praise Song for the Day."

Widely panned by poets and critics alike—Carol Rumens writing in The Guardian finds the piece, "way too prosy"the piece features 14 erratic movements, then tacks on the after-thought of a single-line flourishing a cliché.

Senior editor of The American Spectator, Tom Bethell, sums up the accurate critical position imposed by the vacuity of this inaugural piece:

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.

As poet and literary critic, Adam Kirsch, asserted, such a momentous occasion is "just the kind of event that might inspire genuine poetry." However, as Kirsch continues, "the praetorian pomp, the Capitoline backdrop, the giant crowds, all seemed more redolent of Caesar than George Washington."

Kirsch asserts that Alexander’s failing to live up to the ancient standards of works delivered by such notables as Horace and Virgil was, however, "oddly heartening."

Kirsch then explains, "In a monarchy, there is no shame for a poet, or for anyone else, in being the monarch's servant. In our democratic age, however, poets have always had scruples about exalting leaders in verse." Kirsch continues to elucidate the problem a poet faces in trying to write an occasional poem to feature at a presidential inauguration:

Since the French Revolution, there have been great public poems in English, but almost no great official poems. For modern lyric poets, whose first obligation is to the truth of their own experience, it has only been possible to write well on public themes when the public intersects, or interferes, with that experience—when history usurps privacy. (my emphasis)

Because the personal and the public must intersect, if the poem is to be successful, the fact that Alexander’s piece failed that intersection meant that the poem failed. Kirsch further explains that "Her verse is not public but bureaucratic—that is to say, spoken by no one and addressed to no one."

Thus, instead offering a genuine intersection of the personal and public, Alexander’s failed to be genuine because it "was a perfect specimen of this kind of bureaucratic verse."

Praise Song for the Day

A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration

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.

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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.

Rendering her piece at the inauguration

Commentary

This piece of doggerel is perfectly suited to celebrate the lack of literary acumen possessed by Barack Hussein Obama, beginning his occupation of the Oval Office.

First Movement: Mundane Beginning

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

The opening lines state a mundane fact; as people move through their day, they pass other people, sometimes looking at each other, sometimes speaking to each other. A more vacuous set of lines may be difficult to imagine. According to Tom Bethell, these lines, "could hardly be more wooden."

Bethell then quotes an LA Times critic who opined, “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.”

Second Movement: Exaggeration and Bloat

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

The second movement declares that there is noise all around us, and inexplicably the non-informative claim is repeated. Then added to the repeated line is the jarring image of "bramble, thorn and din." The images jerks the readers attention from a likely city setting to the country out in the brambles and briars.

The bramble and thorn attach themselves to another bizarre and jarring image: "each / one of our ancestors on our tongues." This strange, bloated image appears out of nowhere for apparently no reason, unconnected to anything before or after.

Third, Fourth, Fifth Movements: If You Have to Explain . . .

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.

The third, fourth, and fifth movements offer a list of Whitmanesque laborer-at-his/her-labor images. Instead of letting the images speak for themselves, however, as Whitman does, this poet finds it necessary to explain.

After presenting people at their various repairs, "stitching up a hem," "darning a hole," "patching a tire," the speaker tells the reader what s/he just read: those folks are "repairing the things in need of repair."

The speaker then reports, "someone is trying to make music," "a woman and her son wait for the bus," and farmer evaluates the weather, while a teacher gives a test. Again, the empty rhetoric continues, reminding the reader that such images could be conjured from here to doomsday.

When Whitman elongated his catalogues, he juxtaposed them with reason and purpose. No reason and purpose can link this mundane, haphazard list.

Sixth, Seventh Movements: The Collective

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.

The speaker reveals that the collective "we" are "encounter[ing] each other in words." Again, the speaker is delivering the same information with which she began her flabby piece—people speak to one another. Her further infusion of the fact that we speak to one another in words that need to be considered and then reconsidered again sound empty and without reason and purpose.

The seventh movement attempts to symbolize "dirt roads and highways" as barriers in service of overcoming distance. But again, the claims remain mundane offering only informative tidbits that we all already know.

Eight Movement: Juvenile Remark

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.

Playing on the fabricated symbol of "roads," the speaker prosaically states that she knows something better in future time on "down the road" is in the offing. An obvious attempt to compliment the presidency she is heralding. Her notion that the new Occupier of the Oval Office will make us safe renders her claims not only empty but laughable.

Then she offers a juvenile remark about finding that safe place, even as we have to move into the future "we cannot see." Again, whoever thought otherwise? We all know we cannot see the future, unless we are of a rare class of clairvoyants. This straining for profundity becomes monotonous in its disingenuousness.

Ninth, Tenth Movements: A Self-Command

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.

The speaker then commands herself, "Say it plain," implying that she had not been "plain," although her lines have offered mostly literal prose broken into lines to look like poetry. And she has offered nothing but clichés and simple claims of which virtually all are already aware.

In the ninth and tenth movements, the speaker situates her historical, racial allusions: she wants to say plainly that many folks preceding our generation have died "for this day." A ludicrous, absolutely disturbing idea: really? our founders and ancestors died so that an inexperienced, narcissistic neophyte, lacking basic knowledge of the history of his own country without any ability or hope of presiding over a successful presidency could occupy the Oval Office?

Well, no, not exactly. The speaker seems to pivot back to cataloguing actual laborers who have been responsible for building things that people need and use: people who "laid the train tracks" and people who "raised the bridges," as well as people who "picked the cotton and the lettuce." Also important are those who built the "glittering edifices" where other people would work to keep them clean.

Eleventh Movement: Praise the Obama Signs

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

The eleventh movement offers exclamations calling for a "praise song for struggle," as well as the piece's title, "praise song for the day." In addition, she calls for a "[p]raise song for every hand-lettered sign, / the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables."

All those Obama signs deserve a praise-song; all the folks sitting around kitchen tables "figuring-it-out" that Obama will fix their finances deserve a praise-song.

Twelfth, Thirteenth Movements: Nattering and Posturing

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.

Movements 12-13 are a nattering of professorial philosophy about love, masquerading as heart-felt profundity, such as loving "thy neighbor," the medical person first doing "no harm," or the notion that love is after all the "mightiest word."

And just when the speaker begins to achieve a low level of genuine poetic value in the two strongest lines in the work, "Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light," she destroys that achievement with discord in the line, "love with no need to pre-empt grievance." Not pre-empting grievance allows grievance to worsen. The "widening pool of light" dries up in political posturing.

Fourteenth Movement: Echoing Angelou's Doggerel

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,

The final movement remains unremarkable except that readers may hear an echo of the Clinton inaugural verse, Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morning," in the line, "On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp." But again the allusion falls flat appearing to be again straining for some reason to exist.

Final Line: Which Light?

praise song for walking forward in that light.

The final line, standing orphaned, "praise song for walking forward in that light," solicits the question, which light? That "widening pool of light," one supposes—the one that was darkened by partisan incursion.

Sources

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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