Theory Teacher's Blog

No “si, se puede” in Alexander’s inauguration poem

Last Wednesday, in class, we discussed Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of her poem “Praise Song for the Day” immediately after Barack Obama’s delivery of his inauguration speech. The poem has received quite a bit of criticism from the popular presses, not only conservative, right wing periodicles such as here, but also liberal ones such as here, and left wing such as here. Her poem is what literary historians call an “occasional poem,” and as Salon.com points out, in the eighteenth century, most poetry was “occassional poetry” such as this, dedicated to public events or public concerns. Not until the nineteenth century, at the beginning of what we call the “romantic period,” did people begin to think of poetry as the individual expression of original genius or of a private emotion. With this historical framework in mind, the question for this blog post is what the event of this poem has to teach us about the nature of authors and readers. I think this poem, the reactions to it, and its relation to several different cultural traditions raise some useful questions not only about how we read, but also about who we are and what we could be.

Here is a YouTube clip of her reading.

How should we begin analyzing this poem? Do we begin with the author’s biography? Do we begin with the form (somewhat prosaic, with awkward meter)? Do we begin with its metaphors and  imagery? Or do we begin with the occasion or historical moment? It is, perhaps, important to ask where we begin, because our choice of where to begin suggests much about how we understand and determine the poem’s meaning and significance. In the case of Alexander’s poem, it seems somewhat obvious that we should begin neither with the author nor with the long literary tradition of “occasional poetry” (as T.S. Eliot might suggest we must in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), but with the circumstances of the particular event itself. Indeed, it seems almost unavoidable; how else could we begin in this case? Her series of metaphors and images almost resembles a politician’s speech in the way it addresses the everyday lives of different kinds of Americans: farmers, teachers, etc. Just as a politician wants to be as inclusive as possible of all of his or her constituencies in a way that recognizes their daily struggles and gives them hope, so too with Alexander’s poem. One could suggest that the American literary tradition is also important here, because, in a way, the poem kind of resembles Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and “I Hear America Singing” which also seem sometimes to be nothing more than long lists of all the different kinds of people in the country (the constituencies, or demos, of our democracy.) Ultimately, though, the content of Alexander’s poem seems to have been somewhat pre-determined by the political circumstances of January 20, 2009 more than it seems to be an expression of Alexander’s personality or of a literary tradition.

Unfortunately, her poem almost seems superfluous, giving the audience nothing that they didn’t already get from Obama’s speech, and it seems somewhat thin, shallow, and clichéd, perhaps because Alexander wanted so much to please everyone in the audience. Is this the fault of the occasion, or the fault of Alexander? What might a better inauguration poem have sounded like?

But before I answer the question of whose fault it is, I want to take a detour through another question. What about poems that aren’t performed at political events? Is our starting point different for them? Another way to ask this question is this: what governs this poem? It’s funny to think of a poem as subject to some form of government, but when you think about it, everything we say is somehow “governed” by something. There are all sorts of conventions that limit what we can say in the classroom, in a church, in the theater, etc. Most of what we write and say repeats things that others have written or said. We immitate; we quote; we repeat. Even when one writes a poem in a private diary, that writing is governed both by what the writer consciously knows about the world and by the writer’s unconscious. So, as I discussed last year in a blog post here about the nature of authors, not only “occasional poems” like Alexander’s, but all poetry and writing are governed in various ways. The goal of theory and criticism is to begin to raise questions about what is controlling or limiting the content and style of a poem, and by raising such questions, we can perhaps begin to free ourselves from those controls and limits, which may have been unnoticed before. Through such questioning, an author can realize what has limited his writing and then overcome those limits and write even better.

This is what I think is part of the point of Roland Barthe’s “Death of an Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” Foucault emphasizes how authors (the published ones, we’re talking about) are part of a legal system (i.e., copyright), an institutional system of schools, etc., and historical circumstances that are both cultural and economic. In doing so, he is challenging the rather naïve belief that authors are somehow transcendental geniuses who float above the world graciously dropping their brilliance upon us, a brilliance whose singularly universal meaning is apparant in the same way to everyone and to all time. Foucault returns us to the author’s real context. And when Barthes celebrates the everyday, worldly reader-who-writes over the mystical, mythical author (i.e., a mystification of the legal apparatus of copyright law), he is basically agreeing with the slogan “si, se puede” or “yes, we can” that Obama borrowed from the immigrant rights movement for his own political campaign.

I think this leads us to a conclusion that good poetry, just like good politics, begins not so simply with a famous author’s mind or the president’s will to power, but with the people raising questions and seeking answers. As Orwell suggests in “Why I Write,” good literature (not all literature), just like a good politician, responds to the anxieties, desires, questions, and spirit of the people (i.e., to the reader.) Good literature begins with us and our questioning of what limits us. As Mos Def explains in his brilliant song “Fear Not of Man,” hip hop is not some giant living up in the hills; rather, “we are hip hop.”

To return to my question about where the fault lies for Alexander’s poem, perhaps we are disappointed because it seemed to lack the courage to question those limits. She was content to follow Obama rather than lead him. We might contrast her poem to Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, too, Sing America,” which is a great poem precisely because it did not follow Whitman’s somewhat tedious (it seems to us now) “I Hear America Singing” (not his best work.) Rather, Hughes challenged the limits of Whitman’s vision and strongly asserted his own version of “si se puede.”

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January 24, 2009 Posted by | poetry | 4 Comments