In which I reveal my pedestrian sensibilities

I have never claimed to have fantastic taste when it comes to certain things. Given the choice between listening to Bonnie Raitt or David Bowie, I will pick the former every time. Though I'm not what would call a "huge fan," I will admit to liking several Dave Matthews songs unapologetically. And my favorite movie is "Moonstruck." So, really, what the hell do I know?

That being said, I rather liked Elizabeth Alexander's poem for Obama, "Praise Song for the Day." (The full text is here.)

Some lines I liked:

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
The image of the bus is obviously inextricably linked with the story of civil rights in America, and the language is evocative of family, and of people with limited means. Similarly, the imagery of the teacher is utterly familiar with anyone raised in the American public school system, but is elevated by the context. The prosaic description of a classroom quiz stands in for our hopes of a new but challenging beginning.

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.

I liked "sharp sparkle," with the twin images of edges and illumination. And I love the intertwining of new possibilities with the power and connection to language, "any sentence begun." And finally, "praise for walking forward," praise for the courage to move ahead into uncertainty, with all its daunting brilliance.

I am just one guy, and smarter people will likely disagree. But I loved the poem.


  1. I agree with you. I've just read a number of different critiques of the poem yet always came back to the fact that I liked it...I remembered it...I searched for the text so that I could read it again. I loved the poem.

  2. The poem was dull and spiritless. It lacked poetry -- but it did allow for a potty break during the inaugural festivities.

  3. I flattered myself that I'm fascinated by my reactions to poem and Obama's speech.

    I didn't like the poem very much, yet I remember several lines from it.

    I generally liked Obama's speech, yet strain to really remember anything he said in it.

  4. i think the poem stank to high heaven. here's an interesting take on it from "spengler" at asia times:

    Words failed not only Obama, as Sanger noted, but his preacher and poetess as well. The Reverend Joseph Lowery, an old civil rights campaigner of Martin Luther King's generation, concluded his benediction with a jingle: " ... help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right." There was depth in Lowery's triviality.

    Lowery's sing-song had aesthetic merit to the inaugural poem [1] recited by one Elizabeth Alexander, a teacher of African-American Studies at Yale University. Alexander tried to rise from the ordinary to the elevated, but managed to reach only the oxymoronic: "What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to pre-empt grievance."

    Perhaps she meant, "no need to avenge grievance". It is not clear how one can pre-empt a grievance, which is a response to an objectively injurious act. One can pre-empt the injurious act, but not the response, for the response presumes the act. One can pre-empt a poem, by dismissing the poet. Even better, you can visit the Adolescent Poetry Generator at elsewhere.org and get a new (and often better poem than Alexander's) every time you refresh the page. [2]

    It just wasn't their day. I mean that literally: it was a day on which a dark-skinned man became president who had nothing to do with them. The son of a Kenyan economist and an American anthropologist walked off with the blood-stained mantle of seven decades of civil rights struggle. If the black poets and clergy offered a counterfeit of real emotion, it is hard to blame them. They were just the extras on Obama's stage set.

    Oxybarama's inauguration has been compared to John F Kennedy's, when the 87-year-old poet Robert Frost recited The Gift Outright. Frost's poem says that America "was ours before we were the land's", and that we became the land's after "we found out that it was ourselves/We were withholding from our land of living," and gave ourselves to the land in "many deeds of war".

    It is not one of the great poems in the language, but it is classical in construction, Biblical in evocation, and beautifully turned out. I will never forget hearing Frost read that poem; he sounded like the hoary high priest of America's civic religion, and he sent shudders up one's spine. His was a poem that the whole world might read and learn something of America. Sadly, Yale University's Alexander measures up to Frost about as well as Obama measures up to John F Kennedy.

    When Kennedy warned that Americans would bear any burden and pay any price in the cause of freedom, he faced a ruthless and powerful contender in the Soviet Union, whose power still was ascending. Obama observes that "our power alone cannot protect us" (something else than power is supposed to protect the United States?). He added oxymoronically that "our power grows through its prudent use", and through "the tempering qualities of humility and restraint".

    I am trying to recall the humility and restraint that Franklin D Roosevelt displayed towards Japan and Germany during World War II, or Ronald Reagan towards the Soviets during the Cold War. Perhaps I misheard what Reagan said in Berlin: "Mr Gorbachev, in all humility, and without trying to be provocative, I would like to suggest that perhaps you should consider the possibility of tearing down this wall, if that wouldn't be inconvenient, of course."

    Obama's America is everything to everyone, and nothing to anyone. Where Frost evoked a land that had yet to possess a people yet to be born through sacrifice, Obama's America is "Here Comes Everybody": "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth."

    It is one thing to include everyone in America, but quite another to think of the country as a "patchwork" rather than as a land to whom many belonged before they were adopted into it, the sense of its national motto, E Pluribus Unum ( Out of Many, One).

    There is no "there" in Obama's address. Instead, there are nods in so many directions that the compass needle spins. Oxymorons abound because Obama is struggling to hold together so many disparate elements that their incompatibility pops to the surface now and again. We fear at every moment that he will fly apart like the inventor Coppelius' dancing doll of E T A Hoffman's story.

    1. Inaugural Poem, New York Times, January 20, 2009.

    2. Communications From Elsewhere, Poetry Corner,

    (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online


  5. Label me a disagree-er. I found her imagery evocative in the same way that you did, but I thought she failed to do anything with what she evoked. She didn't change our perspectives, our lives, or our understanding. When I compared this poem to Maya Angelou's from 1993, my disappointment grew. I thought we could have gotten something better, from an art form that is capable of so much.

  6. The poem was fine.
    Would better have been read by someone who speaks as well as she writes.