Thursday, January 22, 2009

The state of state poetry

This is Elizabeth Alexander's 'Praise Song for the Day' that she read at Barack Obama's inauguration as president.

What do you all think of it? Pavlov's Cat seemed to like it, but Skeptic Lawyer was less positive. And I don't know how long it took the professional poetry critics to respond to it, but this unenthusiastic response by Adam Kirsch - 'Elizabeth Alexander's bureaucratic verse' - appeared barely hours after the inauguration. But he does make a good point here: "In our democratic age, however, poets have always had scruples about exalting leaders in verse. Since the French Revolution, there have been great public poems in English, but almost no great official poems. For modern lyric poets, whose first obligation is to the truth of their own experience, it has only been possible to write well on public themes when the public intersects, or interferes, with that experience--when history usurps privacy."

Let me put it to all of you folks - what did you think of it? I didn't mind it. It hardly lives up to the standards set by public poets like Spencer, or Kipling, or Dryden, but it strikes me as being a fair example of a lyric written for mass consumption.


Steve said...

Good Lord. That was a poem was it? Awful delivery too. It will confirm most people's suspicions that it's pretty much a dead art form.

TimT said...

I didn't like the delivery. The form and content are fairly bland, but it could have been far worse.

Steve said...

Could have been worse? Only if William McGongagall was involved, I suspect. But at least it wouldn't have been so dull. I would not just say it was bland; I would argue it has set a new benchmark for bland.

TimT said...

It should have been much better than bland, I agree, but for some reason a lot of Presidential inauguaration poetry brings out the worst in people. Was it Maya Angelou who got up at the Bill Clinton inauguration and read out a poem about dinosaur droppings???

Anyway, I'm just interested in what the reactions are to this poem so I don't want to make too many judgments on this right away - though you of course are free to!

forlorn said...

almost no great official poems


As for Alexander, I don't really know what else anyone would have been expecting. She had to be accessible and inoffensive and she took one of the obvious (and probably the safest) options in terms of theme. Touching upon anything more specific than general (and necessarily somewhat trite) sentiments would probably draw charges of being inappropriately partisan, one would imagine. The delivery was laboured, but not completely horrible.

Legal Eagle said...

Hmm, I didn't like it either. The delivery was very stilted, and it was bland. It is probably the "uncontroversial" bit which gets the poets into trouble. I'd like something stirring and a bit more controversial, personally.

Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck, I cannot help but laugh at the Jonny poem.

Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

As I've been avoiding the Kwisatz Haderach's coronation ceremony - I've only just heard this now.

My immediate reaction was -in both words and delivery, in root and branch - this poem is Dreadful.

It's confirmation of what Robert Frost said: "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."

Breaking up some banal, pseudo-intellectual prose with meaningless pauses does not a poem make.

And as for such sentiments as:

"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."

What does this "love" which isn't between couples, families and countrymen actually look like?

[word verification "reake" - how fitting]

Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TimT said...

Forlorn, I find that Andrew Motion poem fascinating for its deployment of the limerick form, if for no other reason than I've made recent excursions into that form myself.

At the same ceremony the chief justice stumbled badly when asking Obama to repeat the words of the inauguration oath. Elizabeth Alexander doesn't make a mistake of anything like the same magnitude, and her style of delivery seems par for the course for many poets - when I hear people reading like that at writing festivals I want to yawn and fall asleep. This happens frequently.

forlorn said...

It's very endearing, isn't it? That probably does have something to do with the limerick aspect. Apparently he was very late in producing it because he couldn't find a rhyme for "Wilkinson" that he liked.

I've never been to a writer's festival, but I did once see a woman at a poetry reading use a similar style to deliver a poem which was essentially a very long list of her ex-boyfriends with a description of each, paying particular attention to muscle tone. I think it lasted about twenty minutes and it was certainly the most nauseating thing I have ever seen or heard.

Dale Slamma said...

If I set the poem aside then I am pleased by a poet being so firmly in the spotlight on such a large occasion.

Most poems written for public occasions are a little bit spazzy, I remember reading one written by Ted Hughes for the Queen Mother that was just awful. I think its almost grand that millions and millions of Americans were exposed, at least, briefly to the idea of poetry being connected to things that matter.

TimT said...

I think its almost grand that millions and millions of Americans were exposed ... to the idea of poetry being connected to things that matter.

I thought that too, at first, but you might just as well say that it's grand that politics was, for once, connected to the things that matter.

And we should probably require different things of poetry than that it be connected to the powerful... otherwise it seems to reflect a kind of subservient relationship to those in power.

If it's true that the English language has had no 'great' state poetry, then that seems to me to be a significant point in its favour. It makes no concessions to authority and reflects our liberal ethos.

Maria said...

My brother taped the inauguration ceremony and I admit to fastforwarding through bits. I watched Obama walk in, I listened to the Master of ceremonies open, the prayer, the VP being sworn in, Aretha Franklin's bit,the presidntial oath and Obama's speech. I fastforwarded during this bit (I did start watching then I started fastforwarding) and that was for a reason. I'm not going to start watching it now.

I know it's lazy but hmmm ... comments on this page don't inspire me

Caz said...

That's a high hurdle: we have to write inspiring comments now?

(Bugger poetry, make the blog commenters inspire with their pith, their zing, their zest, their dazzling intellects! Make them earn their voice in the interwebs!).

I often wondered if Ted Hughes sold his soul to the devil in agreeing to be the anointed royal poet, but they were willing to accept so little from him - much like bloggers & their gratitude for uninspiring comments - (each poem must have, surely, been written on a used post it note, in a five minute rush) - and clearly he was comfortable to indulge them.

Still, the poems were excrement.

TimT said...

If comments should inspire, why not comments in verse?
It'll encourage y'all to be pithy and witty and terse.

Caz said...

Hey, I'm prepared to sing or tap dance my comments, but I sternly draw the line at being forced into verse!

Email: timhtrain - at -

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