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U.K & U.S. readers trash Obama’s Inaugural Poet – and Canada?

January 23, 2009

Carol Rumens, in the Guardian, eviscerates Elizabeth Alexander‘s Praise Song for the DayPresident Obama’s inaugural poem and finds it too “prosy.” The accomplished U.K.poet comes down hard on Alexander.  Leading American newspapers carry similar criticisms. What do Canadians think?

Although I very much like the poem, something about Praise Song for the Day feels unfinished; on the page, Alexander’s words repeat without defined purpose; structurally, there’s a sensation of the lines just scattered about.

But the overall assessment, that the poem is “too prosy” is puzzling. What does “too prosy” mean: too many words on the page? Not enough stylized repetition? Not enough imagery? And “too prosy” compared to what: ” ‘negroes’ chanting” in a field?

Maybe President Obama’s poet was playing with the praise song form – perhaps she first wrote her poem in a “call and response” style, with repeated “incantations,” and then, for any number of reasons, not least of which might have been the desire to surprise, to go “neo-modern” in a Yale/ish sort of way, she removed lines.

Perhaps her intent was to deliberately not live up to  “rise and shine, rise and shine ‘spiritual’ expectations” – maybe she subtracted lines to give the poem, which she knew would be performed in front of millions of people in a day saturated with portent, space.

Breathing room.

That’s the feeling that comes when thinking about the poem, days later, reflecting on Ms. Alexander as she appeared on the Inaugural platform, in her cherry red coat and measured speaking style.

To date, most Guardian commentators kicked the crap out of Alexander for her performance.  As a poet, this grabbed my attention.

Here’s a sample criticism:

“For the record, Alexander always reads her work like this. She’s got a few videos on youtube doing the same stilted, overly-enunciated reading of equally bland verse.”

What does “overly-enunciated” mean? “Overly” implies a comparison. But to what? Should Alexander have read in some kind of slipping-sliding, slurred rhythmic “regional accent”?

What do Canadian readers think of Praise Song for the Day, both the poem on the page and the way they experienced the poem and its performance on January 20th?

Here’s an idea: What if U.S. and Commonwealth citizens were to post on youtube:

a/their own reading of Alexander’s poem, perhaps in different styles with commentary

b/their own poem, if they were to be President Obama’s Inaugural Poet

c/reading the kind of poem that would have met with their approval – several commentators have  unfavorably compared Alexander to Walt Whitman – a stupendous poet, no doubt; but isn’t there something circular and strange about comparing contemporary poets to Great Dead Ones? What are we saying by doing that, that poets should sound like the ones that came before?

As a poet, I ask the reader, show me!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. derrick permalink
    January 27, 2009 11:29 pm

    i didn’t see the inauguration – i heard it on the radio, in fact i was late for work because i stayed at home to listen to it. i’d like to use that as the excuse for not staying to listen to the poem – i had to go to work. but i didn’t hear, or see, the poem.

    but i can read it now, and i’ll be reading an entirely different poem than most people saw. further, i’ll read it with these readings – the global opinion machine, from renee in collingwood to carol in london – in mind, so i’ll be reading an entirely different poem once again.

    so i read it – i liked it, my first thought was ‘that’s a bit much,’ though. i think i liked where it was and where it was going more than where it went in the end. ‘too prosy’ seems kinda ridiculous, maybe because i really like prose, but also because the poem was written for the first president in a while who communicates in prose, rather than hat tips and references. i think ‘prosy’ is appropriate.

  2. Cary O'Malley permalink
    January 27, 2009 10:51 am

    I really enjoyed Alexander’s poem. I liked the clear way she spoke it, if I (God forbid) had to address over a million people, I’d want to speak clearly as she did. I also liked the poem itself. Some of the critics seem to want her to be in competition with Obama, but coming directly after him, I thought she added a nice counter point. I didn’t want drama, I wanted her quiet but thoughtful and very accessible poem. It almost seemed a response to his talk. Yes, this is us, the people talking, taking time out from our lives to mark this moment but still very caught up in our own lives. Well done, I say.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    January 27, 2009 10:06 am

    Julie and Sandra,

    Thank you for taking the time to post…as a poet, i’m intrigued by this essence of “unfinished/ness” in a poem – how it either repels or draws in a reader or both.

    “the line we walk…we cannot see” – it’s about poetry as well.
    Interesting and stimulating that Alexander’s piece, as a part of “all things Obama” garnered so much attention. R

  4. Sandra Chamberlain-Snider permalink
    January 23, 2009 5:06 pm

    I enjoyed the poem, and too felt the “unfinished” essence. Even days later, I think the unfinished feel is supposed to linger, make us think, about the poem, about the day, about what it means to be american. The line “we walk…we cannot see”, that image sums up for me the freedom and choice americans have. Praise is best when it is humbled and I think Alexander got it right with simple language and everyday images, how do you express the enormity of a place where the child of a single mom and immigrant can choose to run for president… and get chosen in return.

  5. Julie permalink
    January 23, 2009 2:39 pm

    I have to say that I tend to agree with Renee’s assessment that the poem seemed “unfinished” and the oratory flat for the occasion. While the theme of ordinary people going about their lives as a moment of history is marked is fabulous, the poem–at least when read aloud–seemed cluttered to me and so the images or theme didn’t ring through. Perhaps it works better on the page? Overall, I was disappointed.

  6. reneethewriter permalink
    January 23, 2009 1:46 pm

    Thank you, Adrian, for the comment and for the link to the Colbert Robert – let me know of any other appearances/discussion. Great to read your heart felt response to the poem. R

  7. Adrian permalink
    January 23, 2009 12:29 pm

    Well, I loved the poem – loved its evocation of people’s lives. It was a people’s poem – does that make it prosy? On a day dominated on the stage by inevitable celebrity, it was a nice touch.

    As for the presentation, she was speaking to 1.6 million people directly in front of her. I thought she did well. Watch her the next day on the Colbert Report (via Her presentation on the day wasn’t put on. It was who she is.

    BTW, she was great with Colbert. Clearly, she knows how to teach…

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