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The Inaugural Poem

By Travis Nichols

While clearly not the event of the day, the poetry world was paying special attention to Elizabeth Alexander this morning, as she was only the fourth poet to deliver a poem during the inaugural ceremony.
The poem will be available in chapbook form from Graywolf on February 6.
Will any of you be buying it?
UPDATE: Many of you have already bought it, it seems, since Praise Song for the Day currently sits atop the Amazon poetry bestseller list (sales rank #181).

Comments (35)

  • On January 20, 2009 at 12:07 pm Gregory Bem wrote:

    Did anyone get the gist that Rev. Lowery’s speech immediately following Elizabeth Alexander was far more poetic? The tone, the subtle parablesque imagery, and of course the humor toward the end invigorated me, and arguably the audience, for that matter, more than Alexander’s presentation. Not to say that I didn’t like Alexander’s poem, but it didn’t have the performance punch. I described Lowery to my friend Jeff in Brooklyn as a Tony Hoagland with a lot of soul, and a little bit of God.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 12:10 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    I thought I heard some good moments in the poem. Who knows how it will look on the page, though? As Kay Ryan writes, about AWP, “But what could you tell about anybody’s poetry in this big-top atmosphere? The room is all out of proportion with how poetry works. The pressure is all wrong. This place is right for revivals and mass conversions, for stars and demagogues. I don’t think I’d trust poetry that worked too well here. Aren’t the persuasions of poetry private? To my mind, the right sized room to hear poetry is my head, the words speaking from the page.”

  • On January 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm Jordan wrote:

    Sure. And if they want to make one of Joseph Lowery’s benediction, I’d pick that up too.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 12:18 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    The poem was terrible, as expected. I’m not sure Miller Williams or Maya Angelou wrote worse poems, but I’m sure not going to go back & read them to find out. (Hey, if no one plays the cynic, this place will start smelling of daisies. Do you want that? Do you?)

  • On January 20, 2009 at 12:41 pm Jordan wrote:

    The Times has the text of the poem.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 12:54 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    No, we don’t want daisies, Michael.
    Lowery was GREAT!!!! Which shows it is possible to rise to the occasion, Jason and Kay.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 1:22 pm Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    Eh. Jay-Z would’ve been better.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 1:57 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I liked the poem. & I liked the low-key recitation.
    It shoiuld be remembered that this was an “occasional” poem, composed for a very specific circumstance. So the comparison to the AWP “big top” is not really apt. Not every poem a poet writes is for a presidential inauguration.
    Alexander was offering a meditation on the meaning of that event. Not a song, not a comedy routine, not a soliloquy, not an exhortation, but a meditation. As such, I thought it was fully effective. I thought the UNDERSTATEMENT was its strongest suit.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 2:06 pm Jason Crane wrote:

    I’ll buy Alexander’s chapbook, as much for the historical significance as anything else. I liked Lowry’s benediction, particularly the old-school rhymes at the end.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 2:27 pm Manoel Cartola wrote:

    I dunno. Jason’s quotes of Kay Ryan reveal the exact infantile solipsism that the contemporary poem has become: the puny dictator lyric (think Kim Jong il), little rabbit-pebble poems with no collective resonance? It is my understanding that poetry usually has/or had something to do with speech and voice and not just this fetishism of language, “the personal,” and burrowing into a littel cubby-hole of a lyric with some hot cocoa.
    About the poem:
    I felt embarrassed for her. I am more entertained reading an instruction manual. Who cares how it looks on page– as far as I am aware, she was commisioned for the event, the live reading… not the page: even the page is a stage though right?
    -Manoel Cartola

  • On January 20, 2009 at 2:50 pm Cathy wrote:

    Not that this is a rationale for her performance but she did have to read right after Barack Obama. Imagine reading a poem right after Barack Obama. She should have asked to be given a different spot, like reading right after the Yo-Yo Ma quartet.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 3:23 pm Doodle wrote:

    Re Kenny G.’s suggestion about Jay-Z, recall Lil Wayne’s prophetic verses (from the song “Beat Without Bass”):
    “You old ass rappers better stay on tour/ You like 44/ I got a 44 I’m 24 I could murk you and come out when I’m 44″
    44!!!!!

  • On January 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    Doodle, who knew?! (That Lil Wayne was Wm. Blake.)
    I was sad to be so meh. She adroitly went all Whitmanian and cataloguesque, however, which is what we Dems is supposed to love. All those stylized, proto-Soviet lettuce-pickers and tire-patchers and farmers. The kitchen table found its way in there too.
    The part I liked best was right at the beginning: “catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking…each one of our ancestors on our tongues.” Acknowledging that we are not post-racial, or indeed very much of post- anything. Yet.
    Chuck D woulda been nice.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 3:48 pm Jordan wrote:

    Having run the numbers, I think Alexander just might have written the poem with an eye toward the eventual N+7 version, “Prank Songwriter for the Day-Glo,” which I believe has been optioned by Lion | Hippie, the prestige imprint of Simon & Simon, Publishers.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 3:53 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    The terrific poet Craig Perez (aka csperez–I think his book is still Numero Uno on the SPD list) today predicts that both Kenny Goldsmith and I will be chosen by President Obama as his readers for the next inauguration, four years from today.
    He titles his divinatory post “Craigadamus 1: School O’Bamatude” and announces it to be the first of a series of apocalyptic predictions for the Poetry Field.
    It’s really quite funny (though I have no idea what the allusion to blackface has to do with Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz). Anyway, here it is: http://blindelephant.blogspot.com/
    I’ll be starting my poem tonight. And I will demand to go first, Jan. 20, 2013, as by the time Goldsmith would be done rhapsodizing from his conceptual reproduction of the entire Sunday NY Times, it’d be the evening of the 25th.
    I also want to know how Travis Nichols, in the recent issue of The Believer, could have gotten his characterization of Jack Spicer’s metaphysics so terribly wrong, but we’re talking about Elizabeth Alexander here, so I guess that’s neither here nor there.
    Kent

  • On January 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm Javier Huerta wrote:

    Lowrey schooled all of us.
    Lesson #1: RHYTHM
    Lesson #2: the value of a 2 minute giggle
    Yes, i will be buying the inaugural poem chapbook.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 5:27 pm Paul wrote:

    That was so much like a coronation and the poem was perfect Poet Laureate. Congratulations on your new king.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 5:40 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    I don’t think Kay Ryan’s quote has anything to do with “infantile solipsism,” and I think people are reading it (and my quotation of it) as overly cynical. But it’s merely an admission that “anybody’s poetry”, boomed out into a spacious public context, is going to be hard to process – that goes for big conference halls and inaugurations.
    I refer to the page in a metaphorical sense: how will the poem look to us, in time, in private, when we’ve mulled it? (But in defense of the literal page, let’s not trot out the tired cliche that the real poetry is the stuff that “has/or had something to do with speech and voice.” Of course speech is important. But the poems that find us when we’re alone, reading, should not be compared to puny dictators; I came to poetry through the page, not some circle of bards, located next to a fireplace, or in a smoky coffeehouse. Nothing wrong w/ these places, of course, but you don’t see the line or stanza breaks when you’re listening to someone at a podium. And the poetry reading that takes place in one’s head is never as limited as the public one, where a poet’s particular performance will inevitably limit meaning. (Similarly, a performance of Shakespeare will never realize all of the meaning within the text.) I’m glad I first saw the opening of “The Hollow Men,” in chalk, on my grade 12 blackboard, where my teacher left it, in silence, for us to consider. Eliot’s voice would’ve ruined it.)
    By the way, I can imagine the poetry of a puny dictator, broadcast through megaphones, having a collective resonance, though not necessarily a good one.
    But, as already stated, I think Alexander’s poem had some nice moments, and I meant it.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 6:37 pm Tim O'Brien wrote:

    The sitting at the table “figuring it out”. It was an unsurprising effort.

  • On January 20, 2009 at 7:04 pm Jana wrote:

    Sadly, no, I won’t be buying the chapbook. Yes, Alexander provided a nice “meditation on the moment,” but a meditation isn’t necessarily a poem. I agree with others–Lowery was more poetic, and Obama gave a more profound meditation.

  • On January 21, 2009 at 3:16 am john wrote:

    If you was white
    You’d be all right
    If you was brown
    Stick around
    But as you is black
    Oh brother, get back get back get back
    — Big Bill Broonzy, “Black, Brown and White Blues”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZLw5ahxm-Q
    Lowery got the rhythm from song.
    I liked Alexander’s poem and her reading.
    Party hopped tonight. First party: People I don’t know that well, haven’t known that long, nice people, around a dozen. Among the crowd: A singer in an amateur choir with a concert this weekend; a viola player in an amateur string quartet; a former actress who gave it up when she had kids and needed to make more money.
    Host had taped the inaugural ceremonies from the morning TV and it was on in background. As the swearing in came on, people got quiet and listened.
    People liked the poem. A few of the people had heard it, maybe more than once, and two people chimed in on lines that they liked.
    People loved Lowery’s benediction. Nobody mentioned the song; probably nobody knew it. I loved Lowery’s ancient voice and presence. I loved that both he and Alexander spoke of love; I especially loved that Alexander evoked a love beyond nationalism.
    Only notion I didn’t like of Alexander’s: “We encounter each other in words.” True enough, but more fundamentally we encounter each other in our bodies and our clothes; our age, race, hairstyle; our posture and gait. Words are secondary.
    Liked very much that she spoke of the winter’s day, of the gathering, and of the historical struggle for racial equality, still not achieved, but a milestone reached.
    Second party, an old friend’s house, someone I’ve known since high school and with whom I delved into poetry together in college. (He gave me an Alice Notley book as a present tonight — a mutual favorite.) He heard Alexander’s “poetry reading voice” and immediately tuned out. I liked her “poetry voice”; specifically, how she enunciated so that each word stood separately, as a sonic event distinct and individual, but also with the speech melody of idiomatic sentences. I liked it.
    I’ve been dissing the whole idea of an inaugural poem in different comments threads at Harriet, and it got me to thinking about what I would want in an inaugural poem.
    I’d hire a slammer.
    Slammers know how to project, they have rhythm, they’re all about connecting with listeners, they’re free to be fierce and funny in the same poem, and they aren’t emotionally laconic. (Rappers are WAY emotionally laconic by comparison.)
    I gave up poetry just before the Slam movement got going, but back in the early ’80s I wrote a bunch of proto-Slam style poems, specifically for readings, often with performative elements (tape collage accompaniment; noise rock accompaniment; multi-voice poetic piece with chanted background riffs and traded improvised solos (later known as “freestyle”), that I performed with Party Number Two’s host and a third poet).
    So I decided to write my own inaugural poem, slam-style. There’s nothing original in it — it’s a dialog of quotes from Martin Luther King, Woody Guthrie, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Langston Hughes, Emma Lazarus, with minor appearances by other writers including Whitman. Most of the quotes are really well known — common culture.
    If you’re interested, here it is:
    http://utopianturtletop.blogspot.com/2009/01/inaugural-poem-mr.html
    Writing the poem made me appreciate Alexander’s more. Congrats to her — she done real good.

  • On January 21, 2009 at 10:20 am Manoel Cartola wrote:

    Hi Jason,
    Well, I guess the gist of what I was trying to say was that Alexander’s poem wasn’t commissioned for the page. So to go and make the equally tired cliche of “poems that find us when we’re alone, reading” (which, to an extent, does imply hot cocoa and knitted stockings for many) is a tad off-kilter. This poem of Alexander’s was commisioned for the occasion of addressing the entire country. I do agree that poetry usually does find one when reading (for me it was in a big empty library and I usually don’t enjoy most of the readings I’ve attended). However, I’m glad my high school English teacher read those Dickinson poems aloud, she made them come to life; and hearing Whitman aloud can touch the body too. (Or consider Wallace Stevens’ James-Earl-Jones-like oratory in contrast with Eliot).
    Bottom line: Alexander’s poem was comissioned for the occasion of live history and not the “page” that Ryan, apparently, holds so dear (think Linus’ blanky). When one reads music one hears it too, and doesn’t just analyze how the dots fit in the staves.
    -Manny C

  • On January 21, 2009 at 10:52 am suzanne wrote:

    what I objected to
    most about Alexander’s poem
    was her delivery of it
    I do wish poets
    so involved with and passion about WORD
    would learn to voice their words appropriately
    sacrificing nuanced vocal meaning
    to the sharp enunciation of every word
    is a sorry way to win listeners/readers

  • On January 21, 2009 at 12:04 pm Daniel A. Scurek wrote:

    This is one of those moments where I honestly hate to have to be honest. Alexander seems like a very nice person and perhaps she has written some excellent poetry. But the flat, oratorical language reminds me of everything that’s wrong with using the word “poetic” as an adjective; as if saying something is “poetic” automatically assures excellence. And it doesn’t read much better than it sounded, though a little better. But the cliched, rhetorical tone she chose for her reading reveals much about the flaws in the poem itself. A good performance poet (a style of which I’m not automatically a fan of) would have added meat and subtlety to the words. But Auden’s “September 1, 1939″ would have worked much better. It’s worth looking back at Auden’s poem to remind us of how well rhythm, specificity, and carefully crafted metaphor can work.

  • On January 21, 2009 at 4:16 pm Gretchen wrote:

    Four words: “and work inside of.” Clunk clunk clunk.

  • On January 21, 2009 at 4:33 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    “From my non-scientific poll (sadly not conducted at parties like John’s), everyone of my friends and family, none of whom are poets, liked or loved the poem, which was written for the most important historical event in recent American history. They will remember it as part of what made that event meaningful for them. They liked that the poem spoke plainly, that its historical recall contributed to the momentous day (“Say it plain: that many have died for this day.”), that it wasn’t afraid to speak about love. On reading it, I, too, can see some things to critique and much to praise, but on hearing my friends’ comments, I wished that for once I could suspend my specialist training. Based on its purpose and the comments I heard, I think Praise Song for the Day wildly succeeded.
    Emily

  • On January 21, 2009 at 6:46 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    “Poetry, in the end, is just as simple and naked and bereft and alone as it’s always been. It’s just words, set to a kind of music, which people remember and recite to themselves & each other.” (Henry Gould)

    “The poem’s argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity. Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou’s, Williams’s, and even Robert Frost’s inauguration poems already proved: that the poet’s place is not on the platform but in the crowd, that she should speak not for the people but to them.”
    http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/01/20/adam-kirsch-on-elizabeth-alexander-s-bureaucratic-verse.aspx
    Frederick Douglass
    When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
    and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
    usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
    when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
    reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
    than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
    this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
    beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
    where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
    this man, superb in love and logic, this man
    shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
    not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
    but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
    fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
    Robert Hayden

  • On January 21, 2009 at 9:24 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I, too, have non-poet friends who loved the poem. And I have friends who know little about poetry who thought it the cloying platitudinal disaster it is. Clearly, the criterion for writing a good inauguration poem is precisely not to write a good poem: rather, it must resonate with a great many people, almost all of whom will have little or no training or experience in the reading of poems. That may well be an excuse for stringing platitudes together in clunky lines that add up to less than the sum of most Hallmark cards. But it’s fair to also critique it as a bad poem. The most dispiriting thing about Obama liberals is that they are always ready to cluck their tongues at the slightest threat of realism, as though if we all wish hard enough, Obama will effect a transformation of the corporate state into a progressive paradise, in defiance of history & possibility.

  • On January 22, 2009 at 1:03 pm Wanda Coleman wrote:

    I believe the Reverend Lowery was quoting from the Negro National Anthem, the lyrics by James Weldon Johnson, one of the finest Black voices to ever hold a pen:
    Lift Every Voice And Sing
    Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
    Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
    Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
    Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
    Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
    Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
    Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
    Let us march on till victory is won.
    Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
    Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
    Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
    Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
    We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
    We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
    Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
    Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
    God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
    Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
    Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
    Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
    Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
    Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
    Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
    True to our God, true to our native land.
    I might be mistaken about this–but it is what I thought I heard. The Reverend provided a wonderful close to a remarkable ceremony, as was necessary.

  • On January 22, 2009 at 1:23 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Curious: What’s an Obama liberal, and what’s that got to do with one’s interpretation of Alexander’s poem? Or did I miss something? Are these the same people who thought OJ was innocent? Not trying to be flip, just genuinely curious.

  • On January 23, 2009 at 9:49 am solar wrote:

    Readers might be interested in this Obama poem:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvZ1AaZOnQo

  • On January 23, 2009 at 8:57 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I took an early lunch last Tuesday in order to hear the inaugural poem. I had listened to an interview with Elizabeth Alexander the Sunday before and she wouldn’t reveal the content of her poem. I was intrigued.
    I left early for lunch because I thought the poem would come before Obama’s speech, so I listened to his entire speech. I actually got in trouble for taking a long lunch because I waited for the poem. Needless to say, I was very disappointed that after the poem was announced another woman came on first to give yet another speech. It was about halfway through this speech before I realized that…this was the poem?
    Well, I suppose, at least the Prose poetry people scored a point.

  • On January 27, 2009 at 7:02 pm Ian wrote:

    I thought it was absolute garbage.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 3:29 pm Matt Mason wrote:

    Well, when I saw it on the page, I did like the poem. Especially considering she was asked to write it for, oh, a historic occasion and, oh, to follow Obama as a speaker… in those respects, she did a fine job.
    I, as a writer, was mostly just excited that there would be a poet there. On national television. Reading to millions.
    The only part I didn’t like, as some others have said, was the delivery. Not that she needs to juggle flame or wave her arms and dance… but it IS a poem written with feeling and filled with voices… none of which came across in how she read it. If you couldn’t hear her words, you would not think she was trying to say something inspirational to millions, it looked more like she was recalling all the things she bought at the grocery store that week.
    And the whole time she read, imagined a massive counter at the bottom of the TV screen with numbers whizzing higher and higher to display the number of Americans watching this on TV who were confirming that they would never willingly go to a poetry reading. Ever.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 6:14 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Hell, the poem convinced me to never willingly go to a poetry reading again, ever.


Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 by Travis Nichols.