Friday, February 6, 2009

Continuing the Debate...

Many have commented, both here and via e-mail, on my blog about inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander. Several expressed an interest in reading the poem she created for Obama's big day; thanks to, now you can. Here is "Praise Song for the Day."

To me, Alexander's poem has a sort of Sandburg-ish air--a simple, everyman (everywoman?) accounting of our diversity that slowly leads us, line by line, toward unification--much like the new president's professed goal for our country. And in keeping with this administration's sunny attitude (Obama's "pick yourself up, dust yourself off..." speech cracks me up every time I hear it replayed; am I the only person who wants to jump in with "...and start all over agaaaaaaain!" a la the Jerome Kern golden oldie?), Alexander's happy ending sits well. Critics don't like happy endings, and they don't like simplicity, which is, I'm sure, part of the reason this inaugural poet rankled. Too bad; in my opinion, her words fit the moment. Sometimes, passion matters more than posterity.

My favorite line in the poem is "we encounter each other in words...spiny or smooth." When I talk to young writers, I stress the importance--and joy!--in poetry of finding the exact, absolute, best choice among a word's sundry synonyms. Of all the possibilities Alexander could have used to reference the ugly invectives* and taunts we humans hurl at one another, "spiny" is an intriguing choice--not an adjective typically applied to verbal assaults, but quite apropos, don't you think?

One hopes Ms. Alexander's hide is thick enough to ward off the many spiny words that have come her way these recent weeks, and that she has gotten wind of the smooth ones sent forth from those who found her contribution quite cogent.
*Invective? Invectives? What's your opinion?


Nancy Simpson said...

Hello Jayne, It's good to hear from you. Thanks for your thoughts on Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. It is difficult to hear a poem read and to then be able to comment intelligently without seeing the words in print. But I did. I jumped right in, posted my response and said that I was spiritually and emotionally moved by the poem.

Then I got caught up in the confab. My beef was with the New York Times and the L A Times. Both
printed a copy of Alexander's poem without line breaks. That is not acceptable even if they are newspapers. It is not like it would have been impossible for them to do so. They could have manipulated their columns, used two or three columns instead of one. To me it was as if suddenly there was a nationwide ignorance as to what poetry is and what it does for humans.

I felt as Americans, we have lost touch with the importance of language. Even the sacred oath of office was muddled, the sacred words spoken casually and out of sequence before the world, so they had to be done over. I was embarrassed.

The the most ridiculous thing happened. There must have been millions like me looking for a copy of the inaugural poem with the line breaks, but since there was none, poets around the world decided to place their own line breaks on the poem. No. No. No one can change a poet's line breaks. They could be sued for doing that. But many, many did do it. There were various versions of the poem on the web by the time we finally got the Gray Wolf Press version. Since GWP is Alexander's press, we can calm down and say okay, here is the real thing.

And now, weeks later, after reading the poem and watching a pod cast of Dr. Alexander reading it again, my first response stands. I was moved by the poem. I am impressed with the woman. She is an accomplished writer and an award winning poet.

Thanks for your blog and your focus on poetry. You know that poetry is my life. Can't help myself. So if you hear from me, my response will probably , like this, a bit too much. But, I do hope to keep in touch.

Shannon said...


Thanks for your posts about inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander. I am a lover of words well strung together, and have written -- and been moved -- by a a few poems in my life. Yet I wouldn't by any stretch consider myself a poet or someone who knows poetry well enough to discern good poetry from bad. But as a human being, with the ability to render emotion and express it, I feel my reaction to poetry is just as valid as anyone else's. And that goes for us all.

I was fortunate enough to attend the inauguration, and as a photographer and writer, I blogged about my experiences leading up to the event (I arrived a few days early) as well as my impressions/reflections of the day itself.

For me, Elizabeth's poem was the highlight of my time in DC. Like many in the sea of humanity who had gathered to see and hear Obama, I wasn't expecting a poem to follow him. Indeed, many in the crowd began to leave as soon as Obama finished and I found myself relatively alone beneath the Washington Monument as she began to speak.

And when she posed the question, "What if the mightiest word is love?" I began to shed tears for the first time that day. In that moment, I realized that she had captured it all in that question - the reason why Obama won and why we had gathered in the millions to celebrate it. Because we, as human beings, believed in love more than fear.

Love -- on that day -- was mightier than fear. And it reminded me that if we hold on to that truth, if we speak it and live it, there is no limit as to what we can do to restore America to it's destiny as a beacon of hope for the world once more.

You can find my photos of the inauguration woven between the lines of Elizabeth's poem, at

With hope,

Glenda said...

I think it is interesting that my sister who watched the inauguration on TV said she lost interest in the poem as it was being read, but when I sent her a copy of the poem, she said it was much better than what she heard that day.
I shall not judge, but admire Ms Alexander for writing an inauguration poem. How hard must that be?