Praise Song for the Day

I loved Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem. I think the language was beautiful and evocative, and all the imagery about ordinary, everyday lives and mundane worries gave it a Woody Guthrie-esque feeling — or, to use Alex Koppelman’s comparison, a Jacob Lawrence painting:

Its simple images — “Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire” — were as pungent as Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the black Diaspora from the South, and every bit as moving. Yes, she carried the big theme of black America’s struggle, but carried it lightly. With a black president about to call the White House home, she conjured the “dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce.”

Alex didn’t like the lines toward the end about love that much, though — and that was my favorite part:

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

Adam Kirsch weirdly calls the poem “self-conscious” and “bureaucratic,” either because it was too imperial or not imperial enough — I can’t make out which:

There was inevitably something imperial about the inauguration today: the praetorian pomp, the Capitoline backdrop, the giant crowds, all seemed more redolent of Caesar than George Washington. Even President Obama’s speech, for all its predictable poeticizing about America, was not addressed simply to Americans; it was a message urbi et orbi, with sections clearly meant for the ears of Europeans, Africans, and “the Muslim world.” (If we were Romans, however, we would have been much more troubled by the bad omen of Chief Justice Roberts and Obama stumbling over the words of the oath of office; for the Romans, a ritual was a ritual, and had to be done right.)

It was oddly heartening, then, to see how completely Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” (here’s the full text) failed to live up to the standard of public, official verse in which the Romans excelled. When Horace produced his Carmen Saeculare at the command of the Emperor Augustus, as part of the festivities for the Secular Games in 17 B.C., he was happily placing his gifts at the service of the new imperial regime, much as Virgil did when he wrote the Aeneid. So, too, with the Elizabethan poets, who poured their lyrics and masques at the feet of Gloriana. In a monarchy, there is no shame for a poet, or for anyone else, in being the monarch’s servant.

Kirsch calls Alexander an “inevitable choice” to give the Inaugural Poem because she has a similar background to Obama’s:

Alexander was an inevitable choice to be Obama’s laureate. Like Obama, Alexander is an establishment figure-a professor at Yale, a Pulitzer Prize finalist–who is very conscious of the ways she does not fit the usual establishment image–she is a black woman in a field once dominated by white men. Like him, too, she has challenged the establishment by joining it, rather than fighting it. Her best poems–especially in her first, reputation-making book, The Venus Hottentot–do not accept that there is an antagonism between African-American “folk” culture and “high” culture. She has written admiringly about figures like Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and Romare Bearden, who fused the two, creating something new and distinctively American. “Ralph Ellison’s house is underground/next door to my house,” she writes in her most recent book, American Sublime.

Good lord. That’s pretty self-conscious writing from someone who objects to same in Alexander’s work.

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