U.K & U.S. readers trash Obama’s Inaugural Poet – and Canada?
Carol Rumens, in the Guardian, eviscerates Elizabeth Alexander‘s Praise Song for the Day – President 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.
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!