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Inaugural poem is less than praiseworthy

Elizabeth Alexander's 'Praise Song for the Day' is too prosaic for the occasion and its own good.

January 21, 2009|David L. Ulin

For all its pomp and circumstance, the first writer's inaugural didn't exactly set the world of words on fire. First, there was the address by President Obama, which, while refreshingly tough-minded, lacked the soaring rhetoric for which he is known.

Then, there was "Praise Song for the Day," a poem commissioned for the inauguration and written and delivered by Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale professor and author of five collections of poetry, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist "American Sublime."

Alexander is just the fourth poet to appear at an inaugural; the others are Robert Frost, who delivered his poem "Dedication" at the inauguration of President Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who were part of the first and second President Clinton inaugurations, respectively. That's rarefied company, but unfortunately "Praise Song for the Day" didn't measure up.

Relying on prosaic language -- "Each day we go about our business," the poem opens, a strange sentiment for an occasion that, on so many levels, was not about business as usual -- Alexander framed a series of snapshots: "A woman and her son wait for the bus. / A farmer considers the changing sky; a teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.' "

The intention, clearly, was to present a chorus of American voices, an expression of the way "[w]e encounter each other in words." Yet, except for a stanza evoking the struggles of black Americans, Alexander's "Praise Song" simply didn't sing.

"Say it plain," she wrote in that passage, "that many have died for this day. Sing 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." Here, we get a glimpse of what her poem might have offered, how it might have stirred us, not through elevated language so much as elevated emotion, the intersection of history and the human heart.

There is, of course, a cognitive disconnect to reading poetry to an audience numbering in the millions, as Alexander did. Most poets never reach that many people in a lifetime, which may have something to do with the choice to keep her focus simple, her imagery direct. Even so, the crowd began dispersing well before she was finished, as if her words were little more than an afterthought.

Partly, that has to do with her placement on the program, after the president; she had the misfortune of following the main event. But even more, it suggests the tangential role of poetry in our national conversation, which is unlikely to change no matter how seriously this president, or any other, takes the written word.

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david.ulin@latimes.com

Ulin is The Times' book editor.

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