I’m sure when Elizabeth Alexander agreed to be the inaugural poet, she knew she’d be up for some criticism. Well, buck up Liz, because the claws have come out:
The problem is, by no stretch is her poem a poem at all. While as a stilted monologue it had a suggestion of lean appeal, far better than the greeting card goo Maya Angelou cranks out and insists on calling poetry, Alexander’s effort is the product of a limited imagination, an academic approach to rhythm and an anorexic understanding of imagery.
From The Guardian:
Even when writing for a public occasion and a vast audience, the poet should be able to renew language by being precise, surprising, unhackneyed. Otherwise, what is the point of such a commission? Alexander is a true people’s poet, but she has written better poems for the people than this one.
From the Baltimore Sun:
Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration day poem, “Praise Song for the Day”, has drawn praise — and sharp criticism — from Read Street readers. But there’s no denying it got everyone’s attention. Funny how a poet can live in relative obscurity and be launched to stardom by a few minutes in front of TV cameras.
From Times Online (UK):
Praise Song for the Day was unmemorable. How do I know that for sure? Why, because I can’t remember it. Two minutes after it was spoken I couldn’t remember it. Our columnist, David Baddiel, wondered whether he couldn’t spot the Secret Service agents hastily removing the bullet-proof screens as she spoke; oh, I suppose that’s going a little far. But only just.
If you missed Alexander’s reading yesterday, here it is.
Do I think it is the greatest poem ever written? No. But I would like to point out that prior to Alexander’s reading, many critics remarked at how impossible the task of of writing an inaugural poem is. I’m not making excuses for for Alexander, but it seems to me that people are criticizing the poem for the very same reason that a lot of Americans are going to embrace it. It was simplistic, it was prosy, but it was also image driven and easy to understand. For those who thought Alexander should have written a more formal verse, well, a majority of the American public isn’t going to know what a spondee or a ceasura is. Is this a separate problem? Perhaps. Am I slamming forms? No. I like forms. I try to do my best by them, but imagine you’re writing a poem that will be heard by 1 million plus people? I’m not sure any contemporary poet can imagine that, so while I feel some of the criticism is warranted, I honestly think some of it is sour grapes.
Has Alexander written better poems? Of course she has. Who said this was supposed to be the crowning jewel in her career? Remember, she was chosen. It isn’t like she raised her hand and said “Oooo! Pick me!” In fact, I think most poets would be flattered and then horrified at the prospect of what Alexander was asked to do. As far as I know poets don’t sit down and say, “Now I’m going to write the poem that I will be known for for the rest of my life.” Yet, for some reason people expect that Alexander was supposed to do this with her inaugural poem. This doesn’t seem fair.
Also, the comment about remembering an inaugural poem? I’d be surprised if many American’s remembered an inaugural poem. I’m a poet and I don’t remember any. The focus of the inauguration is not poetry, nor is it music, or worship. These are all mere vehicles for celebration, and what I think is more important is that poetry is still part of that celebration.
I think Frost said it best when he responded to JFK’s request to read at his inauguration:
“I MAY NOT BE EQUAL TO IT BUT I CAN ACCEPT IT FOR MY CAUSE—THE ARTS, POETRY, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME TAKEN INTO THE AFFAIRS OF STATESMEN.“