Thursday, January 22, 2009

On Elizabeth Alexander's reading of her poem

Reb Livingston has once again thrown water on the fire of pettiness that burns through contemporary American poetry, this time in connection with criticisms of Elizabeth Alexander's poem for the inauguration and her reading of it. I recommend her post highly.

Here was my comment:

Thanks, Reb, for pointing out the absurdity of the criticisms of EA and her poem. I enjoyed the poem, myself, both as she read it and when I saw it with its correct lineation on Mark Doty's blog.

As you correctly point out, contemporary poets don't stand a chance when reading their work before or after politicians or preachers. But I also noticed that both Obama and Lowery are not shy of being *orators*, while EA (like just about any contemporary poet who might have accepted the gig) completely avoids anything "oratorical" in her presentation.

It made me wonder how the poem might have sounded if read by someone experienced in public oratory. I think it would have held its ground much better then.

That's not EA's fault, of course; the miniscule audience for contemporary poetry is quite shy of oratory.


Charles Lambert said...

I thought Alexander's job was impossibly difficult and that she, nevertheless, acquitted herself with honour. Of course the poem couldn't compete with Obama's speech, and that wasn't its purpose. What I thought it did was convey a strong sense of dignity and intelligence, while attributing both those qualities to what is beginning to look like Obama's natural constituency, people going about their daily lives with industry and dignity. It didn't have to do more than that. Anything more high-flown would probably have embarrassed people who care about poetry as being vacuous. I thought it hit the right note and held it. Its virtues, as Mark Doty said, are even more evident on the page, and this might be a sort of criticism of Alexander's actual reading, which, for me, started off shakily and then acquired confidence as she read, but isn't that true of most poems, finally, that we need time to think and find the rhythms of the lines ourselves? And it certainly more than held its own against Warren's sermon!

Joannie Stangeland said...

I'll agree with Mr. Lambert, and then I'll disagree.

I concur that the job is impossibly difficult. Yes, it's that please all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time situation. Likelihood is against pleasing all of the people all of the time.

Any occasion poem is difficult--I've been asked to write a few, and none so difficult or visible as this.

Parts of the poem caught me and held me. And it struck me as a poem for everyone, which was the occasion.

But as for delivery, I disagree. You don't have to an orator or a preacher to SING your praise song. With conviction. To be bold. As bold as a preacher.

Poems don't need to be rare, careful vessels of words. After the words have been carefully written, crafted, the poems can be as joyful and vibrant and commanding as anything or anyone.

Anonymous said...

I posted on it, reluctantly but in the end honestly. I think the poem should have been better, I mean more alert in its attention to language. Why for example does she write that people are "trying" to make music with cellos, harmonicas, etc? These are actual musical instruments. It's sloppy.

The subject was fine (except that there were two, and not well joined up) and the tone was fine. But it was too listy, and there was no momentum and no anchor for the lists, really. There are things she could have done to give it more resonance. You have to assume that these were professional decisions and thus open to be judged of professionally.

As for the delivery, she should not have been sandwiched in between the greatest orator of the past fifty years and an old Civil Rights preacher. And yet. There's no way you're telling me they weren't nervous, and yet they managed to speak with conviction and music. I think the poet should have had conviction and music.

Having said that, she's just a person, she took the commission and wrote and delivered the poem, and in poetry terms there wasn't much riding on it. It was more about the day, and the day was beyond wonderful.

JeFF Stumpo said...


Donald Brown said...

Your post reminds me of something a German poetry prof said to us back in Princeton, in response to "tempest in a teapot" debates in the lit crit profession: "Cordiality in a profession is in inverse proportion to its importance in the world" (more or less). To hear "poets" trashing Alexander's poem as "giving poetry a bad name" is rather risible. I like the comment that as soon as a poem was introduced, people were beating a retreat. And why? Because poetry doesn't make an argument the way even the most rhetorical speech does, nor does it "entertain" the way even the most unprofessional music playing does. It's a hard line to walk, putting words to an occasion, but even harder (and that's where Alexander's poem failed most, for me) to find "a sound," a way of making words attain presence in the ear. She sounded too much like the teacher: "take up your pencils, and begin." That said, it was, as a poem, easy to follow, and rhythmic, though not musical. As one friend said to me: "perhaps, knowing who she was following and who preceding, she chose deliberately NOT to be Maya Angelou." Fair enough.

But all the caviling makes me think of this: were musicians in the audience badmouthing Perelman, singers decrying Aretha? Perhaps, but not nearly so loudly or bitterly as "poets" bemoaning the chosen poet. Which takes me back to Stanley's point, above.

Andrew Shields said...

Don, at first I was not sure what you meant by "Stanley's point," but then I figured out that you were referring to the professor you referred to, and that it must be Corngold!