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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

The Inauguration Ceremony Poem

By January 20, 2009

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President Barack Obama’s stirring, inspirational oration at the Presidential inauguration ceremony today was followed by Elizabeth Alexander’s recitation of her poem written for the occasion, “Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle.” Reading through my transcription of the poem, I see that there are indeed some memorable phrases, but I confess that while I was hearing the poem, I felt it was all over the place, not well put together at all, not focused, and certainly not well performed. The hesitations in Alexander’s plodding delivery destroyed whatever rhythmic cadence was written into the lines, and the contrast between her overly careful, almost pedantic articulation and Obama’s soaring speech was excruciating. What did you think about the inaugural poem? I’d welcome your comments.

Comments

January 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm
(1) Nancy Hovis says:

I felt the clear and appropriate message of the poem outweighed any perceived shortcoming it may have in structure and presentation. The reading message of the poem was a refreshing change from the often inappropriate and seemingly hypocritical Christian-based oratory so prevelent during the Bush administration. I applaud the poet, her family and President Obama for chosing a piece that recognizes common humanity, common sense, and universal love as the bases of our salvation (and survival) as a nation and as a member of the global community.

January 20, 2009 at 7:31 pm
(2) Requejo says:

Alas … therein is the depth. The oral vs. the written. Poetry requires both. Read it outloud, slowly. It is the mix of the two senses that must occur.

January 20, 2009 at 11:18 pm
(3) Pam says:

Taken together with the botched swearing in, the stirringly depressing speech, and the racial animus directed at whites during the benediction. I would say the poem was par for the course — as the Dow went down, down, down – so did my soul.

January 20, 2009 at 11:29 pm
(4) Karen says:

I agree with Pam. Dismal indeed, and though I understand part of what the poem said, I think some of the content was trite.

January 20, 2009 at 11:31 pm
(5) Sheilagh says:

It certainly reads better than it sounded,however,I did not recognize it as poetry.I thought it was a passage of prose.
An elderly gentleman was very appreciative when I wrote a rhyming poem in celebration of his 90th Birthday, remarking that modern stuff has no rhyme or reason. There was reason
attatched to the inaugeral poem but it lacked rhythm and joy for such an historic event, to my ears.

January 20, 2009 at 11:56 pm
(6) Debbie McIntosh says:

It was really disappointing and badly delivered.

January 21, 2009 at 12:02 am
(7) T.Roberts says:

Sorry…if THAT recitation represnts the state of American poetry, it is a sad day. The reaction of the crowd (or the LACK of reaction) said it all.
I found the piece to be trite and adolenscent, plattitudinous and cliche filled.

January 21, 2009 at 12:03 am
(8) Gabe says:

I was disappointed in the prosaic diction and syntax – this poem did not sing, did not soar. I’m afraid that by being displayed on such a huge public stage, this weak piece of writing may set back the public’s attitude about poetry, confirming for some that poetry is just a bunch of disjointed sentences with no imagery.

January 21, 2009 at 12:59 am
(9) Patricia says:

I like the poem, although I did not hear the delivery today. I feel the poet’s ideas were appropriate for the serious occasion.

January 21, 2009 at 2:19 am
(10) Paul Zinaka says:

I found the reading style rather patronising. Or was it an effort to reach out to the ‘man in the street’ (euphemism for ‘uneducated’)? If so, I forgive the reader. Was I inspired? Far from it; in fact, as a passionate lover of poetry & Literature, I was so incensed I wished I could snatch the poem from her hands and take over the reading myself! – Paul Zinaka

January 21, 2009 at 7:00 am
(11) James DeGriz says:

Question for the day:

Why should we go about our business,

Going through our days,

Trying to just get by,

To be assaulted by poets speaking nothing?

Attacked by noise,

Spoken in a thousand words,

Sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Someone stitching words together,

Desperate to rise to the occasion,

Hoping her fifteen minutes,

Aren’t wasted on CNN.

Alexander tried to make verse in D.C.,

Words came out as clear as swimming in oil,

A drum or cello note less,

Would have made a better noise.

At Yale a student listens,

Their teacher says, “This is art because I say.”

Parents far away wonder,

“Is this worth the 200K”?

We try to communicate through words,

Some use them well and others poor,

Words jumbled, useless,

Sure don’t help the cause.

We watched on TV and computer screen,

Not believing what she said,

We thought the Yale lawns were greener,

Now we know it’s but brown thorns.

We need a place that is safe,

Where we can walk so not to hear,

We need to be plain,

Don’t make us die to avoid your whine.

Sing the names of the those real poets,

Whitman, Eliot, Bukowski, Browning,

Leaves, Wasteland, Bluebird, Autumn,

At their worst far superior verse then ours.

Listen to the wise Walt Whitman,

“First, don’t write poetry”,

Bukowski mirrored,

This very same idea.

So Alexander “Love thy neighbor”,

Quit your job inflicting no more harm,

Give up the halls of academia,

And go get an honest job.

We’re on the brink,

You can spare us,

Just drop the pen,

And walk away.

January 21, 2009 at 8:06 am
(12) mathscripter says:

“Take out your pencils”

Of all the inspirational minds at work in our country, this woefully untalented poet offered the most unfocused, trite, and clumsy verse to infect the ears of millions.

January 21, 2009 at 9:35 am
(13) English 12 AP says:

huh?

January 21, 2009 at 10:02 am
(14) Lauriate Roly. says:

No you don’t James DeGriz. Don’t try using a pseudonym for Elizabeth Alexander. I know who you are. I recognize your style. You should have written this well for yesterday.

January 21, 2009 at 10:38 am
(15) norm says:

I found the poem to be both timely and thought-provoking. The delivery was good and the message appropriate.

January 21, 2009 at 11:58 am
(16) Peter Danbury says:

I quite liked it. Noise and bramble, thorn and din. Raise your pencils and begin. The delivery could have sung a bit more, but better safe than sorry: overdo the singing, and the result is embarrassing. I did not cringe one bit, and was in fact moved by the groping towards the theme of love’s light. The whole ceremony, the humanly awkward moment between Roberts and Obama included, hung together beautifully, I thought, though the quartet certainly needed more volume.

January 21, 2009 at 12:01 pm
(17) Elaine Lux says:

I found the poem very disappointing when it was read. It had little resonance and was flat for me. As I read your transcription of it, I saw that it was, of its kind, poetic in a prosaic way. I was very saddened at the time that the poem was what it was. The occasion called for more imagination, I think, and less didacticism.

January 21, 2009 at 1:57 pm
(18) ELAINE says:

I like to read a poem maybe once or twice but if I have to read it several times to find out what the poet is trying to say, which I found was this case.
Unknown poets should be given a choice as I feel established poets think they can get away with unthought poems.
I felt the enjambment was quite weak.

January 21, 2009 at 2:36 pm
(19) M Robertson says:

I was VERY disappointed in the poem at the Inagural. It was flat.

January 21, 2009 at 6:45 pm
(20) Kevin says:

I was really looking forward to the poem. I hate to say that I agree with most of the posts here. I was really disappointed.

January 22, 2009 at 8:12 am
(21) Lyn says:

I found the poem to have profound meaning. It had an arc of increasing hope and beauty. Given the opportunity to read it, at my pace and rhythm, broadened my experience of it.
Poetry is what we call it, and if one wants to keep reading rhymes forever, so be it.
Thanks, Elizabeth..

January 22, 2009 at 8:39 am
(22) patriciasj says:

Let’s see-comment includes anger at “animus” to whites (really); depressing oratory (we’re in an economic and military crisis) and flubbed Oath taking (Judge Roberts) and then a brief, well-made, but not “inspiring” poem. I think the poem is well-made; it is a good, not great one. I agree that Elizabeth’s delivery did not serve the poem (nervous, millions watching). But as a neighbor who is a reader, but not a poet said to me I read poems but I don’t always understand them, but I understood her. As poets we are not used to writing for (millions) of ordinary citizens, I wish we were. And for the whites who did not understand Rev. Lowery’s inversion of a classic curse on blacks-check out the song from the 40′s “Get Back, Get Back” maybe you will understand the humor or maybe you’re simply used to your privilege. American identity is undergoing a major evolution.

January 22, 2009 at 8:55 am
(23) Mary says:

I enjoy and write poetry and appreciate both free verse and rhyme. However, this poem bothered me. I could detect no pattern and the thoughts were all over the place. The reading didn’t help; I couldn’t follow her as she read. It had no emotion which would have been appropriate for this unique and historical event. It was the only dark spot on the day.

January 22, 2009 at 11:25 am
(24) Ann says:

At least she spared her audience the vileness of some of her previous poems. All I could think about was the contrast between her reading and Robert Frost’s inaugural reading and the heartbreaking decline of poetry in the United States.

January 22, 2009 at 1:18 pm
(25) Tom says:

The ENTIRE inauguration was a DISGRACE! It started with the so called singing by Aretha Franklin (she was terrible as usual).
It then tumbled downhill with the botched swearing in, followed by the sneaky diatribe against President Bush by the new president (par for the course).
Elizabeth Alexander delivered the poem with all the passion of a 5th.grader who was forced to memorize a poem. According to her, slaves BUILT everything in the United States (NOT TRUE)
The nadir of course was the RACIST BIGOT, Joseph Lowery with his feeble attempt to put the guilt trip on THE ENTIRE WHITE RACE!
The entire SHOW was a far cry from the CLASS that President & Mrs. Bush displayed!

January 22, 2009 at 1:32 pm
(26) hannalisa says:

i’ve often wondered if poetry is dead in the halls of academe … tuesday’s performance confirmed my suspicions. was she on prozac? it was one of the most emotionless recitations i’ve ever heard in my life.

i read she’s been working on it for months, and maybe she was just as sick of the thing by tuesday as we all were by the time she was done.

January 22, 2009 at 2:23 pm
(27) south says:

I was expecting Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Nikki Giovanni, or even the brilliant W.S. Merwin. A rock, a river, a tree. Something bold, but organic, something of a song, with or without the choir. My students had higher hopes, as did I.

January 22, 2009 at 2:31 pm
(28) Linda Lerner says:

I thought it was delivered very poorly, in a flat monotone voice, and
do not care for it any better on reading the poem. Much of it is very prosaic, and didactic, almost bordering on cliche.
This is in sharp contrast to a very moving poem Derick Wolcott
dedicated to Obama published in the London Times, that said so
much using imagery, in a quarter of the space. I wish that poem could
have been read, instead. I heard more poetry in what the minister (forget his name) said who came directly after.

January 22, 2009 at 3:48 pm
(29) William says:

The whole poem seemed to be borrowed from “Leaves Of Grass” by Whitman.
The first stanza
“Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each others’
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.”
is very similar to “To You”

Other similarities I leave to you to find but they are there.

January 22, 2009 at 6:25 pm
(30) Harry Youtt says:

Oh come on all you nay-sayers and bad-gracers! It s a fine poem. It really is. And it isn’t an academic poem, thank God, it is an accessible poem, written for the people, all of the people. The academics are going to be all over it for that. Elizabeth the academic will never hear the end of their rants. In the end we should be praising her for her courage in rendering it. She wrote it for the people! How radical is that? And yes, Whitman’s ghost is rejoicing at that, as well he should be. As well we all should be.

We poets spend our careers doing readings to tiny clusters of devotees, and suddenly one of our number gets to read a poem to millions if not billions throughout the country and the world, and someone has the bad grace to criticize her for her delivery? If anybody’s got a problem with the way she presented it, then just look at its content in the fine light of this new day. Out of the “noise,” “praise song for the day.”

“On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp —
praise song for walking forward in that light.”

And what a day it was! Thank you Elizabeth Alexander, thank you indeed, for being part of the shaping of that day!

January 22, 2009 at 6:43 pm
(31) Theo Critus says:

What banal crap !! Poems should have a source, then a meaning and then leave us going in a direction. This tripe came from nowhere, didn’t even jell or jiggle while it sat there, and then faded before anybody “got it.” (Was I the only one who didn’t know when to applaud” NO!) This sham gives real poetry a bad name with its awful smell. The whole 5-minutes only had 2 high points. First, a lively-looking and lovely-looking girl with much energy comes bounding to the mike. What a hopeful moment !! She begins by mis-stating the poem’s title. Worse, she uses bad grammar, and since she is NOT e.e.cummings, it IS bad grammar. Then the seemingly interminable time of the existence of the “work” runs out and the 2d blessing occurs: she turns and leaves. Praise God !! (suck it up Nancy.) It is so painfully obvious that this shemale was selected for the two obvious reasons that Maya Angelou was selected for the Nobel Prize : gender and race. In both rites (sic) she fails. I hope we never hear of her again. Theo.

January 22, 2009 at 8:17 pm
(32) Ruth says:

The poem was fine. The reading of it, though, did not suit the tone of the poem. It was meant to be upbeat, happy, celebratory, excited, climactic, with the ringing of the bells after the last line. Sheh took a “professional, neutral” reading tone, which ruined it, making it sound like a dirge at a funeral. The right words, but not at all in tune with the mood of 2 Billion listeners! She should have let go of traditional reading tone and read it like it FELT!

January 22, 2009 at 9:09 pm
(33) Dianne says:

The poem’s a keeper: and I keep very few of them.

January 23, 2009 at 3:28 pm
(34) anon. says:

There are contemporary poets who write with an urgent sense of history but they are not to be found anywhere near the universities or the incestuous salons or the self-absorbed writing academies. See for example the September 11 sonnets of Eugene Schlanger (if you can find his work outside France.)

Ms. Alexander gave it her best and she deserves a round of applause.

I expected more from the new President because he appears to be so serious about taking responsibility for his actions.

January 23, 2009 at 5:31 pm
(35) Paul D. Lawrence says:

Too long.

January 23, 2009 at 7:54 pm
(36) Avra says:

I don’t want to read the poem since it was created to be heard — by thousands on thousands of listeners. It’s more important how it sounded at the inaugural itself than how it reads after the event. I watched it on a huge screen, in a cafeteria of high school students, and my impression was that it probably read quite well, but … BUT … The poet had that embarrassing delivery style sadly common among page poets, where each word is delivered in a clipped yet labored, overemphasized way. I really think this is part of what turns off kids to poetry: It just Sounds too precious and pretentious. The poet may write quite well, but if Obama’s team wanted impact, they should have given the spot to a performance poet. I’m 99 percent positive that not one kid in the cafeteria was turned on to poetry by what they heard that day.

January 23, 2009 at 8:54 pm
(37) Gene B. says:

I absolutely love the comments,con & pro,
This had no winging,singing, nor flo….
Those frozen persons standing there and
listening for a rhyme,
Were wishing they could come back,
in the summertime…
Maybe 4 yrs later!!!

January 24, 2009 at 11:00 am
(38) Ignatius Idio says:

Here is my poem for your review and comments.

Thanks.

iidio

The November to Remember – By Dr. Ignatius E. Idio (11/3/2008)

On that historic moment on November 3, 2008;
The sky was starry and the Heavens held their breath
To salute and witness the induction of an American
Into the Presidential Hall of Fame in a unique election
Why was that election so uncommon and different, you might ask?
The new President was an African American
That would not have happened four hundred years ago.

When you count the number of presidents in the gallery;
Tarry and ponder portrait number 44
Itw’ll surely exude an unusual energy and oomph
That captures your eyes and sustains your thoughts
Itw’ll remind you that the trails at the foot of the mountain
Have finally reached the mountain top
And what was old is new again
Seasoned by forty decades of vision, hope, and dream
It’s a new chapter in American Presidential election.

History is alive and ‘tis proof of human experience;
In 1607, English settlers of Jamestown, Virginia
Bought and owned African men, women, and children
They forced some to work on cotton fields or tobacco farms
And exploited others as domestic hands
Whether field or house slaves as they’re oft’n called
They toiled daily from dawn to sundown
Under harsh and inhospitable conditions
To make America the richest country on Earth.

They endured uninsured, no pay or health care
While other Americans enjoyed the affluence
Slaves themselves were denied compensations
The cruelty persisted far beyond the 1800s
Until the passage of the 13th Amendment
To end enslavement of African Americans
And once the enslaved tasted a bit of freedom
Free slaves vowed to fight for equal rights
For themselves and for their inheritors.

The struggles for equal rights for all Americans
Led to the Civil War between north and south in 1861
And lasted through the Reconstruction in 1866
In spite of freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights
Jim Crow laws and poll tax were designed and used
To strip African Americans of their rights to vote
Public fountains, restaurants, and parks were off limit for Blacks
And Black children were barred from public schools
Until the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954
In Brown versus Board of Education.

Compelled by guilt, shame, and contrite;
Some whites opposed slavery and demanded an end to it
Others fought diligently to maintain the status quo
Meanwhile, African Americans relentlessly dreamt
They hoped and prayed for the birth of one of them
To be the President for change and hope
Yet, other Americans, including some founding parents
Fervently doubted the slim possibility of an African American
To be elected the president of the United States of America.

Although African Americans knew all along;
That from the manger of slave barns or cabins
An African American President will be born
That dream became reality on August 4, 1961 when
An African American named Barack Hussein Obama
A bona fide heir of the descendant of slaves and slave owners
Was born to a Kenyan father and an American white mother
And raised by his mother and white grandparents
From both, Barack acquired the passion for success.
And from them, he obtained the tenacity for hard work;
From his African roots, he inherited a rare gene for intellectual
This Harvard Law School graduate and a shrewd politician
Won both the popular and electoral college votes
To become the 44th and probably the 45th US President in 2012
Because of Barack Hussein Obama’s Presidency
All Americans, regardless of gender or racial background
Have a chance to follow the trails up to the mountain top
But they must live beyond the memories of cruelty of slavery
To accept and live with each other with respect and trust because
On that historic day of November 3, 2008, change and hope
Finally arrived for all Americans and the rest of the world.

What kind of legacy will President Obama inherit?
He’ll take over the greatest challenge of the 21st century
A glum economy at home and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
For America to remain the beacon of hope and freedom
We the people of all walks of life are obligated
To support President Barack Hussein Obama
Our President is intelligent, youthful, and vibrant
To be the Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world
God Bless Michelle, Sasha, Malia, and President Obama
God Bless all of us and God Bless the United States of America.

January 24, 2009 at 8:56 pm
(39) Ted Roberts says:

I strongly suspect that anyone who says they found merit in the poem are Obama supporters/apologists. If this banal piece of tripe is a representation of what Obummer will bring to the nation, we are in VERY big trouble.

January 27, 2009 at 9:17 am
(40) mallika says:

Very prosaic and ordinary. Hardly poetic!!

January 27, 2009 at 3:15 pm
(41) Stephan Anstey says:

I thought the poem was dreadful. Really, an embarrassment to the poetry community. I am not being partisan here – just as poetry – it was ham-handed and unexceptional in every way. It reads like an MFA assignment and her performance was every bad stereotype of poets. A very sad day for poetry, if you ask me.

January 29, 2009 at 10:02 pm
(42) Bob S says:

I would like to know who picked her to read? For such an historic event this poet was terribly dissapointing. The poem should have been exciting, insperational and easily understood by people who don’t read poetry. Poetry has become a cottage industry for intellectuals who want to stroke their own egos with clever abstraction in words.

January 25, 2013 at 11:05 am
(43) tim dyson says:

As I listened and then, as I read Blanco’s poem, I was struck by my level of understanding of it. So much of modern poetry is so difficult to understand. I understand the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, my current favorite. Let’s be thankful for the simplicity, for the eloquence and for how close Blanco comes to clarifying the nature of our nation.

The movement and the images of our country lend themselves to the mission of poetry: to illuminate the nooks and crevices of our consciousness.

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