The first time I heard of the poet Elizabeth Alexander was in December 2008, when the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies announced that she had been chosen to compose and read a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration. National Public Radio reported the story on All Things Considered, and host Melissa Block invited Alexander onto the air to read a poem. So it was that, while listening to National Public Radio, which is my habit in the evenings, while lying prostrate on the floor of my office, which is my habit while I listen to National Public Radio, I tried to decide what to make of Elizabeth Alexander.
She seemed to me a master of the American poetic singsong.
By this I mean the elocutionary convention of delivering verse with preciousness and with rapture, so that the audience can hear how profoundly the poet loves the English language, how badly the poet wants to give the English language a deep tongue-kiss. In the singsong, speech occurs at an even volume, no syllable spoken much more loudly or softly than any other; in the singsong, the only way to emphasize a word is to say it slowly, or to pause after it. The singsong ignores both the syntactic beat of vernacular English and the rhythm of syllabically metered lines, giving every poem the cadence of an automobile engine that (precious thing!) can’t quite turn over. If a poem introduces no startling vocabulary, summons no puzzling imagery, and contemplates no troubling thoughts—in other words, if a poem is prosaic enough that the audience needs no time to take it in—then the singsong sounds like self-satisfaction.
I do not know whether Elizabeth Alexander is a self-satisfied poet, I only know that she declined, when she read on NPR, to defy poetic convention. And something about the purity of her singsong …
… made me wonder: Had Barack Obama selected a hack?
Elizabeth Alexander did not think so. Two days after her interview on NPR, Alexander gave an interview to Katharine Seelye of the New York Times. The article reported that Alexander “has been a friend of Mr. Obama for more than a decade,” but:
Asked if she thought that the friendship played a role in her being picked for the inauguration, she said no. The Obamas have many friends and know other poets, she said.
“One of the things we’ve seen with every choice he’s made is that it’s based on what he perceives as excellence,” Ms. Alexander said.
It was morning when I read this, I had not yet slumped to the floor of my office, so I decided to have a look at Elizabeth Alexander’s website. It contained ample evidence of excellence. In particular, it contained a biographical blurb that began:
Elizabeth Alexander is one of the most vital poets of her generation.
It listed her published books, it mentioned that one of them was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and it continued on to say:
Alexander is a pivotal figure in American poetry. Her work echoes the inflections of earlier generations, as it foretells new artistic directions for her contemporaries as well as future poets. In several anthologies of American poetry, Alexander’s work concludes the twentieth century, while in others she serves as the inaugural poet for a new generation of twenty-first century voices.
Also on her website was a statement, signed by Alexander and dated December 2008, expressing her joy at being selected by Obama:
Words matter. Language matters. We live in and express ourselves with language, and that is how we communicate and move through the world in community.
The distillation of language in poetry, its precision, can help us see sharply in the midst of many conundrums.
Poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us towards transformation. Language distilled and artfully arranged shifts our experience of the words and the worldviews we live in.
It is hard to know what to make of a poet who professes the importance of distilled and artfully arranged words, and who then publishes a biographical blurb that includes clichés (“pivotal figure”), mixed metaphors (“echoes the inflections of earlier generations … foretells new artistic directions”), jargon (“Alexander’s work concludes the twentieth century”), and stutters (“as … as well as”).
It is hard to know what to make of a poet who labels her own biographical blurb “Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Alexander,” or who tells NPR that
The pressure, the challenge is to write a poem that can serve all those expectant gathered millions.
… and that …
What is local, what is intimate, what is precise is the best way to communicate those larger matters.
… and at the same time publishes academic essays containing such local, intimate, and precise misstatements of national fact as that the Tet Offensive was complete by 1967 (Meditations on “Mecca”: Gwendolyn Brooks and the Responsibilities of the Black Poet).
It is hard to know what to make of a poet who in fact has a fine ear for harmonious assonance and for subtle rhyme, who in fact mediates deeply on the difficulties and ambiguities of race in America, who in fact is so careful with her words, and yet who is so careless with her details. It is hard to know what to make of a poet who, in a poem called The Venus Hottentot (1825), begins in the voice of Georges Cuvier …
Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.
A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary
crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles
of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will
ever see what I see
through this microscope.
… demonstrating a loving mastery of sound (glass, dazzle, stalactites; geometry, few will ever see), and a puzzling indifference to mathematics (all angles are geometric, and perfect, and possible) and the natural sciences (water, being invisible, doesn’t swirl under a microscope; if anything, the particles in it are made abnormally still by the slide). It is hard to know what to make of a poet who, in a poem titled Race about a forester in Oregon, tells a finely ironic tale about human genetics and human identity, yet writes …
The poet invents heroic moments where the pale black
/ ancestor stands up
on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse
/ who is learning
her husband’s caesuras.
… apparently unaware that redwoods are not representative trees in Oregon and that sage is not a plant that grows in redwood groves. It was hard to know what to make of a poet who, when she read a poem entitled Ars Poetica #100: I Believe on NPR, a poem concluding …
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
… read her poem in the American poetic singsong, so that even the phrases “and now my voice is rising” and “here I hear myself loudest” occurred at an even volume, no syllable spoken much more loudly or softly than any other.
Oh, to hell with this litany. It is not, in fact, so hard to know what to make of Elizabeth Alexander. She is a poet who, this Tuesday, will earnestly attempt to do something that may well be beyond her talents.
It may well be beyond anyone’s talents.
Only three poets have ever dared to read their own verse at a presidential inauguration, and in all three cases it was a poetical fiasco. There are reasons for this. A poem comes about when a human, acting alone, seeks to create a unified artistic effect through the arrangement of words; a presidential inauguration comes about when tens of millions of humans, acting in concert, seek to control the structures of social power through the arrangement of executive officeholders. Hoping to improve a presidential inauguration by commissioning a poem is like hoping to generate clean energy by commissioning angleheaded hipsters to provide the nation with an ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night; it is like hoping for Roe v. Wade and getting In Celebration of My Uterus.
The first American to compose and deliver an inaugural poem was Robert Frost. That was at Jack Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Frost was 86 years old, and it is possible that he had no business writing poetry anymore. The thing he drafted, Dedication, opens with ten lines of throat-clearing and then proceeds to a summary of American history:
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
But Frost couldn’t bring himself to read it. The story goes that when Kennedy had finished addressing the crowd (”… ask not …”), and when Frost had assumed the podium, the glare of the winter sun blinded the old poet and the wind whipped the pages from his hands. He couldn’t decipher the words in front of him. Because Frost had not committed Dedication to memory, he had no choice but to recite a different poem, an older poem, a poem he knew by heart, The Gift Outright. Well, that’s how the story goes. I dislike the story. I prefer to think that, as he rose and began to speak, Frost realized the badness of his new poem. I prefer to think that Frost realized that to say in verse that the Founding Fathers had …
… by the example of our Declaration
[Made] everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
… made him sound something like Rudyard Kipling and something like the hypocrite poet in Babbitt, T. Cholmondeley Frink. I prefer to think that Frost realized that it was absurd for him to declare, in rhyme and about a politician half his age:
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
Golden age of poetry and power or no, it would be thirty-two years and ten swearing-ins before a poet again appeared at an inauguration.
That was Maya Angelou, who produced for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration the best American inaugural poem to date, Inaugural Poem, wherein a Rock of Ages, joined by a River of Ages and a Tree of Ages, calls upon Americans to face their destiny proudly. This is a fine conceit, and mostly well rendered.
But Angelou had read Dedication and she wanted Inaugural Poem to make amends for its predecessor’s chauvinism; she wanted it to offer a better and more inclusive version of American history. And if one tries to spread the poetic franchise as widely as Walt Whitman, while still rhyming as regularly as Robert Frost, what sort of stanza does one get?
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
One gets a bad stanza.
Not all of Angelou’s mistakes were reactions against Frost, though. For example, Frost used Dedication to make policy suggestions; he urged America to teach the world “how Democracy is meant.” Angelou couldn’t resist using Inaugural Poem to do the same. To her credit, she didn’t come out sounding entirely foolish …
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
… but only because her policy suggestions were so anodyne: more peace and less littering. And because she was worried about leaving anyone out, and because she was worried about giving anyone offense, Angelou failed to write a great poem. At the moment when Inaugural Poem should boom with exhortations, it whispers clichés:
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
In 1997, feeling that each new hour held a new chance for a new beginning, Bill Clinton lifted up his heart and invited Miller Williams to compose an inaugural verse. Williams turned in a poem called Of History and Hope that, despite its title, does not bother to retell much American history. Rather, the poem takes the form of rhymed pseudo-riddles. It often sounds less like an occasional poem than like Dr. Seuss:
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
The poem includes the weirdest lines ever uttered by an inaugural poet:
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer
A photograph exists of Clinton sitting behind Williams, trying to make sense of it all:
Weirdness can be worthwhile for its own sake, but Williams’s poem quickly unweirds itself. Because, like Frost and Angelou before him, Williams had some policy advice to offer. When Williams addresses national unity and national education policy, he writes the worst inaugural lines to date:
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Who were many people voting for a president cannot become one poet publicly falling apart. Who dreamed for every inauguration a good poem cannot let poets alone write verse or not.
It is little wonder that when Katharine Seelye first asked Elizabeth Alexander what she was reading for inspiration, Alexander mentioned neither Frost, nor Angelou, nor Williams. In an subsequent interview for the New York Times—by Dwight Garner, published on Christmas Eve—Alexander expanded:
“I have read the previous inaugural poems, as well as many others,” she said. “The ones that appeal to me have a sense of focus and a kind of gravitas, an ability to appeal to larger issues without getting corny.” One thing Ms. Alexander wants to do, she said, is speak clearly but artfully. “I don’t want the poem to talk down to some imagined audience,” she said. Among the poets she has been reading for guidance are Virgil, W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Gwendolyn Brooks.
So maybe a good inaugural poem isn’t beyond Alexander’s talents.
Still, mentioning Gwendolyn (“We / Jazz June. We / Die soon.”) Brooks and W. H. (“Like love we often weep, / Like love we seldom keep.”) Auden in the same sentence makes me fear that Alexander will write a poem in the first person plural. And praising poems that do not talk down to some imagined audience, yet that have a sense of focus and a kind of gravitas, makes me fear that Alexander will write a poem chock-a-block with what workshop participants call “good details.” And of course I fear that she will read her poem in the singsong.
But my fears will have to wait for the inauguration. Anyway, now is not the hour for fear. Now is the hour for lying prostrate on my office floor.