Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inaugural Poem - Elizabeth Alexander

I've been asked quite a few times over the last two days my opinion of Elizabeth Alexander's poem and "was it good enough?" Was she good enough?

Yesterday, a poet read a poem she had written for an occasion that will never happen again. An occasion of firsts and of history. An occasion where she was to speak the words she wrote just moments after Barack Obama had been sworn in as president, after he made his first speech.

After a speech by the 82% public approval, newly-sworn-in, change-is-happening-now, we've-made-it-to-that-day, now President Barack Obama--would anything be good enough.

In the moment, listening to the poem, I was nervous. Nervous for Elizabeth Alexander (I so hate live TV as I always worry someone will mess up...). Nervous that others would like the poem and worried that a poet wouldn't be asked back. It was hard for me to enjoy it at the moment, it was hard not to wrap my heart up and carry it into the other room for safe keeping--a poet reading a poem on such an occasion--I wasn't used to this kind of spotlight, but I listened

and certain lines stood out to me--

walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words...

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

What if the mightiest word is love?

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

I went back and watched her read it again on YouTube. I read it again on Peter's blog.

How can I take a moment like this and criticize any aspect of it? It's too new, it's too important. I'm too grateful-- a poet (a poet!) was included again and not someone that everyone knew, including everyone in the poetry world. How can I say "she should have done this..." after it's already happened?

Speaking the poem is a moment--on a freezing January day to millions of people, even more home watching it on television, on the stage with a new president in a historic moment after he had just spoken to America and the world for the first time as our new leader. I can't say anything except in gratitude for Elizabeth Alexander for stepping up to the podium and reading her poem. In gratitude to Barack Obama for once again including a poet in the ceremonies. Gratitude for poetry to stand on the world stage with musicians, politics, singers, prayer, and our new president and his family.

Do I like the poem?
We encounter each other in words, words...

Do I think she did a good job?
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

I've ordered my copy from Graywolf.
I feel honored by this day.



  1. Thanks for your generous post. I think it may have been harder than usual to hear a poem one's never read before, simply because it was delivered in the wake of Obama's brilliant, inspirational, truth-telling speech. Alexander's poem emerged from a meditative center—a place maybe not roomy enough for millions of viewers scattered across the mall, across America, and across the world. It was an admirable attempt. And who among us could have written better?

  2. Thanks for these words, Kelli. You summed up my feelings on the the poem and the poet.

  3. Well I feel almost blasphemous saying these words, words,...but I was very disappointed in Elizabeth Alexander's poem. And I was even more disappointed in its delivery...Like a kindergarten teacher, speaking slowly, oh so slowly, to the underdeveloped mind...There were also far too many cheap echos, (Sandburgs "Chicago" for instance, or Yeats' "words alone are certain good")...Well in this case, some words "are more equal than others" to the task, for instance, the Benediction, (and this coming from one of Obama's "nonbelievers) was energetic, witty, uplifting, humbling, and brought Obama to his feet...(as it did me symbolically)...never mind excuses, like the daunting challenge of it all...It just could have, and should have been better...


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