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....So the whole idea of an inaugural poem is bad because a poet must be a rebel artist? Or was it just the combination of the inaugural platform and the choice of a poet by paper credentials and diversity factors that have nothing to do with whether the person can transport the throng with spoken word?
But poetry is a matter of having your own words, not of having words for others; and the weakness of Alexander's work is precisely its consciousness of obligation. Her poetic superego leads her to affirm piously, rather than question or challenge. This weakness is precisely what made her a perfect, an all too perfect, choice for inaugural poet....
[I]t was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem today with a cliché ("Each day we go about our business"), before going on to tell the nation "I know there's something better down the road"; and pose the knotty question, "What if the mightiest word is ‘love'?"; and conclude with a classic instance of elegant variation: "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp." The poem's argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity. Alexander has reminded us... 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.
Yesterday, live-blogging since 6:04 a.m., I abruptly shut the television off after a few lines of the poem. I'd put up with a lot of talking heads blathering, crowds of people standing or walking around, dignitaries getting in and out of cars, but I couldn't put up with that.
12:28: "Someone is stitching up a hem"... someone is inflicting poetry on us.That was it for me. In the comments, Amba said:
I really wish they had had the balls to choose a rapper to deliver the inaugural poem. It took me a long time to get used to it, but now I think rap is where the living poetry's gone. (Only 2 decades late, me. LOL.) Of course a lot of it's bad or gross, but some of it is really, really good, forceful and inventive. I don't know rappers well enough to say who it should have been, but imagine -- it could've been memorable.I agreed. This — not something from Yale — is the poetry real people — in crowds — listen to today. It would have been exciting, surprising. It would have thrilled us or at least amused us with humorous rhymes. We did get the Reverend Joseph Lowery inserting a little, very simple, rap-like poetry into his benediction:
when black will not be asked to get in backBut those weren't startling rhymes. We were just startled to hear them in a prayer.
when brown can stick around
when yellow will be mellow
when the red man can get ahead, man
and when white will embrace what is right
Now, Rush Limbaugh thought Lowery and Alexander were the highlight of the inauguration. Surely, Lowery's poem-within-a-prayer was the most memorable thing we heard yesterday, but how could that thudding poem have delighted him?
ALEXANDER: Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's eyes, or not, about to speak, or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair. Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.Ha ha. That was the funniest thing I heard all day yesterday. Don't you think more than half of the people listening to Alexander read her poem started thinking: Why did the chicken cross the road?
RUSH: Boom box? Boom box at a presidential inauguration? Snerdley, this is not torture. This is not torture. This is hilarious. Somebody, somewhere, thought this was exceptional. You have to understand, somebody thought that this was brilliant. It's a code. I don't understand it. [ADDED: At this point Rush adopts Alexander's serious- academic reading style.] Today there's a street outside. On that street are cars. And in those cars are people with music on their iPods. And they listen. And the children in the back of the car, who are also on the road, may or may not be in their child safety seats, in which case the driver will be arrested and the child taken away. When the car gets to its destination, it may run out of gas. If it runs out of gas, it's obviously a gas guzzler, and if it's a gas guzzler, then we need to harness the energy of the sun and punish the SOB driving the gas guzzler. If the car gets to its destination with plenty of gas left in the tank, we give it a bonus of additional markers at Walmart for the day after Christmas, which is how today was planned. And after we go to Walmart and pick up some of the lead paint that is made with our children in mind, imported from China, we will then have a meeting with the Iranians, who will love us, and they will get in their car, will also be on their road, and their road shall never end until they have nuclear weapons. I'm sorry. If I can do it, it isn't art. Here. We got another bite.
ALEXANDER: A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin." We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider. We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side. I know there's something better down the road."
RUSH: And when we get to the end of the road, with the person driving the guzzler, with the perhaps or not perhaps child safety seats in the back, we will then know the answer to the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? And why did the egg cross the road to see something better down the road. But could the egg have crossed the road without the chicken? These are depth questions. And only President Obama has the answers. Cookie, get me more of this. Two sound bites from Elizabeth Alexander are simply not enough. Get me more.