Something there is that doesn’t like an inauguration

For a thoughtful assessment, this commentary got off to a fatuous start? I think so.

Obama’s inauguration was just the kind of event that might inspire genuine poetry: it was that rare moment when the public intersected with the private for good instead of evil.

It’s about the dumbbell poem read at the grand event by Yalie Elizabeth Alexander, who is black, says Adam Kirsch in The New Republic blog, “The Plank.”  She is?  Could have fooled me.

Her best poems–especially in her first, reputation-making book, The Venus Hottentot–do not accept that there is an antagonism between African-American “folk” culture and “high” culture.

Reminds me of the woman sitting next to Winston Churchill at dinner who said she had decided to accept the universe.  “By God, you’d better,” fumed Winnie.  But this woman would rather not, apparently.

Kirsch likes her, but she

suffers . . . from excessive self-consciousness about her role as spokesman and example. As she writes in “Ars Poetica #92: Marcus Garvey on Elocution”:

To realize I was trained for this,

Expected to speak out, to speak well.

To realize, my family believed

I would have words for others.

Go, girl, they said, as families do.  But why is she so pedestrian about it?

This is the problem.  Wordsworth and friends walked away from the oh-so-poetic and found beauty in everyday matters, like daffodils and skylarks.  But this lady reads like a telegram.

Kirsch says her weakness lies in her “consciousness of obligation,” in her “poetic superego” that

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.

She’s ceremonial, period, producing “inspirational banalities”:

Indeed, in “Ars Poetica #1,002: Rally,” published in 2005 when Barack Obama was still just a first-year Senator from Illinois, she already imagines herself lecturing a crowd . . .

I dreamed a pronouncement

about poetry and peace.

“People are violent,”

I said through the megaphone

on the quintessentially

frigid Saturday

to the rabble stretching

all the way up First.

What, no irony?  Does she really want to go that far, with that people-are-violent stuff?

But Kirsch has choice words for her 1/20/09 offering:

This poem, written for a book and not for an inauguration, is already public in the worst sense–inauthentic, bureaucratic, rhetorical. So it 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.

Knotty question, yes.  Kirsch is too kind, handling her as someone with something to say, trapped by a situation:

Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou’s, Williams’s, and even Robert Frost’s inauguration poems already proved: 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.

I’d say, rather, that she exposed herself, as her fellow poets expose themselves in today’s poetry-society readings coast to coast probably but definitely in Chicago, celebrating the everyday in terms that require little imagination and less cerebration.

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  • Nicholas Stix  On 01/28/2009 at 3:01 AM

    From the samples at TNR, it seems to me this tenure-holder–whom my wife had also not realized was an “African American”–is not a poet at all, but a professional role model and member of the Black School of Rhetorical Bombast. She doesn’t know the difference between “iron” and “irony,” though I’m sure she frequently abuses the term “ironic” to her audiences. To do justice to her inaugural essay would require satire.

    Speaking of iron-filled prose, I just glanced at the official autobiography at her Web site,

    “Elizabeth Alexander is one of the most vital poets of her generation. She has published five books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year;” and, most recently, her first young adult collection (co-authored with Marilyn Nelson), Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008 Connecticut Book Award). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama.

    “Alexander is a pivotal figure in American poetry. Her work echoes the inflections of earlier generations, as it foretells new artistic directions for her contemporaries as well as future poets. In several anthologies of American poetry, Alexander’s work concludes the twentieth century, while in others she serves as the inaugural poet for a new generation of twenty-first century voices. Her poems are included in dozens of collections and have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic and Bengali.

    “Professor Alexander is the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that ‘contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.’ She is the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks, and a Guggenheim fellowship.”

    I can appreciate the iron in this “Incoming Chair, [Yale] Department of African-American Studies” receiving a fellowship for “improving race relations” and “further[ing] … Brown v. Board of Education.”


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