Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day," doesn’t qualify as a great poem, but it might emerge as an important one. As a celebration of the commonplace and an exaltation of the personal over the political, the poem offers a distinctly American take on the concept of occasional poetry.
Americans, indeed, have never produced much good poetry written for or about specific historical events. While most other English-speaking countries have poet laureates who open and close legislative sessions and churn out verse to boost national pride or recognize public figures’ birthdays, Americans have not cared much for occasional verse. (The Poet Laureate / Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress works to promote the reading, not the writing, of poems.) Only three prior inaugurations have included poets: John Kennedy had Robert Frost and Bill Clinton summoned Maya Angelou and Miller Williams. None produced anything spectacular. Robert Frost composed the god-awful "Dedication" but, blinded by the sunlight, recited the far better "The Gift Outright" from memory. Angelou’s "On the Pulse of Morning" offered up a drearily multicultural untangling of American identity–"The African and Native American, the Sioux / The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek." Of the previous three, only Williams’ staid, academic "Of History and Hope" qualified as a decent poetic effort.
Frost and Angelou, however, joined distinguished company in their poetic failures. The handful of well-known American occasional or historic poems tend to involve apolitical patriots (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere") or refer
to national symbols (Richard Wilbur’s "On Freedom’s Ground" about the Statute of Liberty.) Francis Scott Key, of course, wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" to commemorate the bombardment of Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. This method makes for pretty second rate poetry stripped of musical accompaniment. (Some rarely sung verses include lines like "And where is that band who so vauntingly [sic] swore / That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion, / A home and a country should leave us no more!" Yawn.)
Alexander, however, did something different: She questioned the whole idea and purpose of occasional poetry. Rather than confronting the inauguration, American identity, or any other big question head on, she begins the poem with a celebration of everyday farmers, teachers, and music makers who built America, and in one of the poem’s weaker moments launches into a romantic catalog-like celebration of the "dead who brought us here / who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, / picked the cotton and the lettuce, built / brick by brick the glittering edifices / they would then keep clean and work inside of." But, after all this, she seemingly jumps into the political (or at least philosophical) realm. "Some live by ‘love they neighbor as thyself.’ / Others by first do no harm, / or take no more than you need," she writes. As quickly as she jumped into this political realm, however, she jumps out, writing: "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." In other words, she contends that the most personal of emotions–love–matters most. And that leads to her hopeful, beautiful concluding lines: "In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, / anything can be made, any sentence begun. / On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — / praise song for walking forward in that light." Yes, it’s self-centered. Yes, the poem doesn’t really have much logic. But it works.
By celebrating commonplace individuals, exalting emotion, and describing the near-religious reverence she feels for the inauguration of her friend (she met Obama when both taught at the University of Chicago), Alexander returned to a favorite theme–the romance and beauty of everyday life. In the course of her most recent collection, Antebellum Dream Book, she spins out lines like "Memory is romance / and race is romance / and the Sun King Lives in Washington, D.C.," while reflecting on her upbringing in the District and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s brilliantly eccentric "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly." Those lines, in a different context, could serve as a good summary of "Praise Song."
Above all, Alexander takes a romantic — in the original sense, meaning "strongly emotional" — view of history and the inauguration. For an American writing occasional poetry this seems like a good fit. Poetry, after all, represents an effort to condense emotion, to use language for its evocative aesthetic qualities as well as its actual meaning. A society that forbids the granting of noble titles and limits the terms of most chief executives believes in (but sometimes fails to practice) the principle that all its citizens should enjoy social equality and doesn’t always produce the stuff of good poetry on its public occasions. Besides all the pomp, circumstance, and genuine celebration, a presidential inauguration also signifies the ascent to great power of an individual many Americans did not support. And trying to crystallize that
in a poem seems nearly impossible without detracting from the genuine mood of celebration. In other words, Alexander busted the crux that has long made it difficult for Americans to produce worthwhile occasional poetry.
Replacing logic, reason, and genuine history with emotion might prove a dangerous game when it comes to governance. In the context of poetry, however, doing so often leads to moments of beauty. If nothing else, Alexander wrote a distinctly American poem.
Eli Lehrer is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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