Posted by: Glenda Bailey-Mershon | January 27, 2009

The Inaugural Poem: Analysis

This is what I wrote to a friend the day after. On re-reading, I am still of the same opinion, only more so. I think the poem may have a surprising life.

There’s a good discussion over at Edward Byrnes’ blog at http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/. Some people find it prosaic and complain the language is “ordinary.” I think those are mostly the “language” school folks who place clever turns of phrase over sense. I do agree with those who say the poem breaks down at the stanza that begins “We cross roads and highways . . .” through “We need to find a place where we are safe/” Those lines don’t advance the poem and actually weigh it down with with awkward phrasing and no really interesting observation or images. However, if you take out those two stanzas, the poem reads smoothly and cleanly with an elegant cadence and an elegiac dignity. Yes, it focuses on common people–farmers, teachers, lettuce pickers–and it turns to them for insight into the significance of Obama’s inauguration. I think she deliberately and perhaps stubbornly is telling us that it is on their shoulders he stands, for if the sharecroppers and domestic servants had not repeatedly tried to vote, and laid their bodies against the wheel, the civil rights movement would have remained the tight enclave of lawyers, preachers, college students, and professors, in search of a great army to carry the day. The humble were the army, it is they who had the most to lose, and it is in them that we see the real meaning of electing our first Black president. The poet puts us all on an equal footing: whether we have the courage for “walking forward in that light.” Frost, the “swinger of birches,” I think, would have approved. Her words did not lift us to dizzying heights, perhaps, but it’s pretty hard to see clearly from way up there. Instead, she forced us to look at the commonplace and see its beauty and significance. If not a really great poem, a very sturdy one.

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Responses

  1. I liked the poem overall. I liked quite a few of the lines and especially appreciated the sense that the poem was for EveryPerson, unlike so many poems which might be thought of as selected only for the few.

    I also marvelled at the courage it must have taken for her to stand up and read a poem she had written for an event that happens in a blink of an eye and makes history all the same. And to be a black woman delivering the inaugural poem, no less, and to be a poet writing something with the hope it will reach everyone in some way. And to know that no matter what poem you read/write at this auspicious occasion, there will be tenfold the number of critics to fans, and that such a poem, by default, will never be anything but imperfect. And that’s what, in fact, makes it perfect.

  2. Elizabeth Alexander is a favorite of mine. Her work is accessible, thoughtful and at time lyrical. She displays a great sense of history in her work both family history and that of the world she lives in.
    Some might take accessible to be demeaning, but I really love accessible writing.

    My sister, who followed the whole election process very closely (I, less so.), loved the poem because “the language was so understandable”.

    She and I liked the references to ordinary people (she works at a Target store and is hoping she doesn’t get laid off as they cut back). We are the majority, and we are intelligent, capable and make things work in our country. Of course we need to be the focus of the inauguration. Thanks to Alexander for that.

  3. Exactly, Linda! That was really well put. Literature that lasts speaks to many different kinds of people, I believe. Had she written something with a clever structure and fascinating wording, she might have thrilled the poetry crowd but lost the people who are not that into poetry. But how many people who don’t even like poetry can recognize a phrase of Frost or Dickinson? Plenty, I think. Oftimes, the poetry world comes around to what the people like and consistently lift up. I think that happened with Whitman and others. Elizabeth was clever and true to her poetry roots to write something many people can remember. Already, a number of people have quoted to me: “Say it plain, that many have died for this day.” If they only remember that one line, future generations will come back to it.

    I do wish she had polished a bit more the middle stanzas that represent the turning. (“We cross roads. . . .”). Then it would approach a great poem, I think.Those stanzas are crucial to move us into the ending stanzas, but not on a par with the rest in cadence or imagery. This whole discussion has made me question the structure of some of my own poems. Thanks, Elizabeth!

  4. There’s an interview with Elizabeth Alexander about the Inaugural poem by Dave Rosenthal of the Baltimore Sun. http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/books/blog/

    Here’s a brief excerpt:

    On the sometimes harsh reaction to the poem: “If people think it was not complex enough, then I hope they might take a moment to go back and look at it in its written form and perhaps see what it yields. … I’m sure that before this poem there were plenty of people who did not care for my work. I certainly respect any artist who puts themselves out there … .

    “Being an artist is not about being liked. That’s not why you do it. That’s not why I do it. … What I know from this extraordinary outpouring on the street and on my email and in my mailbox, is that a whole lot of people, and a whole lot of people who have never encountered my poetry before, and who have never encounterd poetry before, in addition to many who do, they’re finding something there. So that’s nice. …

    “The main reason I’m doing this press is it’s important to take this moment on behalf of the art. Guess what? We can have this national conversation about poetry and it won’t hurt a bit.”

    Listen to the full interview in an audiofile on that site.

    Also, there’s been an ongoing discussion of the poem at the Valparaiso Review blog site:
    http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2009/01/elizabeth-alexander-comments-on-her.html


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