I know this is a little late coming, but I wrote this right after the Inauguration back in January and thought I would post it today.
When Obama was elected there was crying and screaming and celebration all over, not only the states, but all over the world we as a people were happy. But this isn’t about Obama being elected, however monumental and amazing that was, that is not the reason I am mentioning it. He was elected and then there was an inauguration celebration for a couple days at the capitol. He was sworn in on the same bible that Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on and it was beautiful. Still though, the part that really stood out to me was the inauguration poem. How awful that poem was, was only a slight surprise to people. What can be expected from American pop culture isn’t much if we look at what our culture is right now. So when she took the podium to read that poem the poetic world was on the edge of their seat. There was a big breath taken in, and when she started to speak, that breath was let out in a gigantic whoosh of disappointment. The poem was chock full of metaphors that were only there to be metaphors and had no meaning whatsoever. The poem droned on for far too long for what it was and the crowd was talking the whole way through it.
Now, poetry isn’t a part of mainstream culture, sure, we could call music a form of poetry, but poetry as an art form in itself is not seen as a part of what we call pop culture. Nobody was drawn into this poem; the crowd was bored and simply waiting for the next act to happen. It was really too bad, that moment could have been a momentous moment for the artistic world. That poem could have been seen as a poem for our generation, the poem for change and movement towards something new and different. But, alas, the poem was monotone and boring.
Alexander was only the fourth poem to read at a Presidential inauguration in the history of the United States. The first to read ever was Robert Frost. Now, Robert Frost is a household name in this country. Frost is a poet that each and every one of us was taught in school and we could al probably recite a line from one of his poems. The poem that he meant to read at that inauguration was probably one of the worst he had ever written. Thankfully for all of us, and for the memory at stake here, the poem he had written down was not memorized and was ruined by the strong wind and strong sun on the day of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost decided to recite a poem from memory, which began with the line: “The land was ours before we were the land’s”. Which seems much more appropriate to the times than his first poem, which had the lines: “Summoning artists to participate – In the august occasions of the state – Seems something artists ought to celebrate”. Way to go Frost, those are some pretty deep thoughts you were having while trying to think of something to say about our country and this new young stylish president we got in 1961. Thankfully, fate intervened and we got something poignant, true and something that resonated with the people.
After Frost only two other Poets were to take the stage at a presidential inauguration in our history besides Ms. Alexander. Maya Angelou read one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration and after that at his second inauguration Miller Williams read a poem.
Elizabeth Alexander is not uneducated nor is she stupid, she merely did not know what in the world she was getting into for this occasion. Alexander is a professor at Yale University. Yale is one of the most prestigious schools in the United States and I’m sure if someone were to sit in on her class, they would see she is most likely a good professor. The problem with her poem was that nobody cared; nobody paid attention, because nobody’s attention was caught. The way she read the poem was slow, painful and monotonous. Mr. Obama, if you are going to pick someone to read a poem to the whole country and many people of the world, please pick someone with some oratory skills. Alexander slaved over each and every word to the point where people couldn’t tell the difference between the words “repair” and “plain”. It all sounded the same. If you are going to say the word “repairing” please do not follow it with the word “repair” unless absolutely necessary in the scheme of abstract poetry. And abstract poetry this was not, this was plain and ordinary and simple. Now, while simple and plain can be good in poetry when we are looking at haiku and trying to tackle a simple subject, the subject of a new president with radical views in this day and age is not plain nor simple. We are not a plain or simple people, we need someone explosive and persuasive and manipulative to say, “Look! This is what’s happening! Rejoice!” Instead, we got sewing, and darning and bridges and cleaning. We need adjectives, we need you to show us that this president is going to change our lives and make us each feel like we belong to something amazing and brilliant. We don’t want you to tell us how plain and simple each of us are, we want you to tell us how fantastic and magnificent each one of us are.
Please Mr. President, let’s have more poets during your reign as president; let’s just try to make them worth something more than metaphors and whispers. We want shouts and laughter and tears and change.