Inaugural Poem Reaction

President Barack Obama's inauguration has come and gone. And as I watched the sweeping camera shots of the epic crowd on the Mall, one couldn't help but feel humbled by the sheer spectacle of it all.

There were certainly a lot of high points during the inauguration ceremonies: Aretha Franklin's stirring rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee", Dr. Joseph E. Lowery's benediction ("When black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yella' will be mella', when the red man can get ahead man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy, say amen!", and of course, much of Obama's inaugural address.

There were a few low points, too: John G. Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States stumbling over the words of the oath of office, the inauguration running behind schedule, and, unfortunately, Elizabeth Alexander's poetry reading.

I don't mean to say that the poem was a failure. I think Alexander did the best she could under the circumstances. But the decision to place her reading directly after Obama's speech was an unfortunate one. How does one follow one of the most stirring orators in modern times? That's a tough act to follow, people. Did anyone else notice the cameras cutting away to droves of people leaving as Alexander was taking the stage? Ouch.

The media has also been pretty unforgiving of Elizabeth Alexander's poem. Some have been critical of the poem's content, calling it "bureaucratic" and "too prosy". Others complained about Alexander's "flat delivery" and sounding as if "she were ordering pizza on the phone" - I blame nerves. However, the media has also had a hand in butchering the poem by providing transcripts of it as if it were a piece of prose.

I think much of the criticism comes from people who either have no background or investment in poetry or from those who had high expectations for Alexander to elevate the art of verse on the national stage.

Was "Praise Song for the Day" a bad poem. Absolutely not. Is it a great poem? No. But Alexander had the daunting task of writing an accessible poem designed for the widest audience imaginable. I think very few poets would have been able to come out of this unscathed.

There are some lovely moments, particularly the sound and imagery of lines like "All about us is/noise and bramble, thorn and din, each/one of our ancestors on our tongues" and in the rhythm and call for optimism that echoes Obama's message of hope and change at the conclusion of the poem: "In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,/ any thing can be made, any sentence begun./ On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,/ praise song for walking forward in that light."

Mark Doty, who recently won the 2008 National Book Award for poetry, posted Elizabeth Alexander's poem in its entirety on his blog, complete with its lines and stanzas as she intended it.

Read "Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration" by Elizabeth Alexander here. You can also read the poem here.

Regardless of the bad press, it is heartening to read that a chapbook of Alexander's poem being published by Graywolf Press on February 6th is already the best-selling book on Amazon.com.

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