Faint Praise for “Praise Song”

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As a poet, I appreciate the gesture made toward the arts when the President-elect asks a poet to present a work at his or her inauguration. I’m as big a dork for it as there is—it’s rare that the art form I’ve chosen to work almost exclusively in gets that kind of exposure.

But I’m starting to think that it’s just not working, that maybe the limited history of the Inaugural Poem is enough to tell us to quit while we’re… well, if not ahead, at least not too far behind.

Take the example of our first inaugural poet, Robert Frost. Frost composed a poem for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, titled ”Dedication,” but because the glare of the sun was too intense, he was unable to read it and instead recited from memory a poem he had written some twenty years before, “The Gift Outright.” Mike Chasar tells an interesting story about the multiple versions of the final line that’s worth taking a look at. Ironically, “The Gift Outright” has come to be seen as the gold standard of Inaugural Poems. It’s a tight little sonnet, and even though it’s a product of its time, with a really limited view of American history, there’s no denying its craft. It’s certainly useful as an artifact.

Compare that to the galumphing lines of “Dedication.” It opens:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend…

It goes on for a while. But given the poems that have followed, we poets might wish that the sun’s glare had been a little softer. Perhaps Kennedy’s tradition would have ended on that January midday.

When Bill Clinton reintroduced the practice in 1992, perhaps hoping to evoke a little of the Kennedy mystique as he had throughout his campaign, he chose Maya Angelou to do the honors. Her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” was pretty much everything “The Gift Outright” was not. It was inclusive, and it wasn’t tight. Its lines were many, its rhymes often forced, its rhetoric predictable. It, too, was a product of its times:

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Very New Age, very touchy-feely. But in a way, exactly what we ought to expect out of an Inaugural Poem. After all, the inauguration, as a political event, isn’t meant to be a partisan event. It’s a coming-together, a ritual to heal the divides between the camps who, months before, were willing to tear each other to shreds. Sure, partisanship is involved—the people singing “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!” to President and Mrs. Bush as they boarded the helicopter on Tuesday weren’t doing it from love—but the symbolism of healing is a large part of the ceremony.

That’s the same attitude that Miller Williams tried to put across in his 1997 poem, “The Ways We Touch.”

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

And then Whitney Houston breaks into the opening verse of “The Greatest Love of All.” That’s the Clinton midterm election in a nutshell: a nation experiencing an economic boom without a clue who Monica Lewinsky or Kenneth Starr are. Sure, conservatives had taken over Congress, but Clinton was handling them and the Internet boom was just starting. It was clear sailing as far as the eye could see. It was the we-can-solve-anything era.

How long ago that seems.

But here we are in 2009, facing great crises, having just elected an inspirational leader. We’ve been hearing nothing but Hope and Change for two years now, and the President asked Elizabeth Alexander for a poem to commemorate the occasion.

It was a no-win situation.

I haven’t had a chance to look at Alexander’s poem in its lineated form yet—all I can find are transcripts and video. But based on what I do have, I think “Praise Song for the Day” is probably the second-best Inaugural Poem out there. It was tighter than Angelou’s poem, the images more evocative, and she avoided the catalogues that filled “On the Pulse of Morning.” Where Angelou’s poem was filled with rocks and rivers and trees, Alexander’s had people—the kind of people President Obama inspired to get involved with politics for the first time.

“Praise Song for the Day” also mostly avoided the abstractions that Williams tossed around willy-nilly. There aren’t any people “believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become— / just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.” Instead, Alexander gave us

…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.”
(Line breaks courtesy of Margaret Soltan.)

Sure, it’s a romantic view of America – but this was an occasional poem celebrating the inauguration of the President of the United States. No one expected darkness and irony.

Yes, Alexander’s performance felt a little stilted and overly-mannered, but she was reading in front of 2.5 million people live and a hundred times that on televisions and Internet streams worldwide. I sympathize – although judging from the reception Alexander is receiving around the Web, I may be alone in that sympathy.

Maybe part of the problem with the Inaugural Poem as a concept is the expectations people bring to the occasion. The installation of President Obama was such an overpowering event that most any poem would pale in comparison. I came to “Praise Song” with lowered expectations—if it was more than doggerel and stayed away from forced rhymes, I’d probably be satisfied. Adam Kirsch, writing for The New Republic, felt differently:

But poetry is a matter of having your own words, not of having words for others; and the weakness of Alexander’s work is precisely its consciousness of obligation. Her poetic superego leads her to affirm piously, rather than question or challenge… Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou’s, Williams’s, and even Robert Frost’s inauguration poems already proved: that the poet’s place is not on the platform but in the crowd, that she should speak not for the people but to them.

I think that’s an unduly harsh assessment of Elizabeth Alexander—the situation called for affirmation, not for question or challenge. It’s a bit much to blame Alexander’s “poetic superego” for her choice to celebrate the moment—she was meeting the expectation of the moment. Poets question and challenge all the time—we deserve a day off once in a while.

But Kirsch has a point about the place of the poet being in the crowd, speaking to the crowd instead of for them. It’s difficult for me to imagine a poem written specifically for an occasion like this one being successful by the normal standards of poetry. Against the standard of past Inaugural Poems, though, I think “Praise Song” holds up reasonably well. But it does lack that punch in the stomach, that moment where readers question something vital about the world around them. I wonder if any poem written for such an occasion can have one.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →