In Defense of Elizabeth Alexander
Poet Elizabeth Alexander has taken some heat over her inaugural poem, delivered today in Washington on this historic day. The L.A. Times was particularly harsh, railing against Alexander's "prosaic language" and "strange sentiment," suggesting the poem "simply didn't sing." Fellow poet/blogger Dean Rader is less critical, but not especially enthusiastic.
I am here to defend Alexander's poem.
I liked it. More than liked it. What the L.A. Times book editor calls prosaic -- "Each day we go about our business" -- is in fact iambic pentameter. What a London Times writer calls "unmemorable" (proved by the fact, she proudly proclaims, that she can't remember it), I think is a strong, subtle, non-bombastic poem that will stand the test of time far better than Maya Angelou's 1992 poem from Bill Clinton's inauguration. I remember being swept away by Angelou's rhetoric at the time; now I read the poem and cannot remember why. I think Alexander's poem will age more gracefully.
Angelou is a better, more vivacious performer and reader. I heard several people complain about Alexander's flat delivery. I was teaching during the swearing-in ceremony and the speech and the poem, so I didn't get to watch the video until just now -- and I think Alexander did a very nice job. I think her reading was strong and clear-voiced.
A praise song is the perfect form for an inaugural poem. I wrote an inaugural poem myself recently as part of a challenge with a group of fellow poets, and let me tell you, it's hard. It's a genre that begs for sentimentality and cliche. I think Alexander avoided these nimbly, while still capturing the optimism and inclusiveness that the occasion demands. And there are some lines that will stick with me: "What if the mightiest word is love" and "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."
To Elizabeth Alexander, I say, bravo. Job well done. That was the hardest poem you will ever have to write, and I think you got it right.