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 »

  1. I agree: good poetry, like good politics, responds to people raising questions and seeking answers. The poetess does raise one important question:

    What if the mightiest word is love?

    This question, in the context that governs her poem, the Inauguration, is politically relevant. It would have sounded completely differently in a church, or in the intimacy of a home. But the context in which the words are spoken gives them a significance that would be interesting to discuss in a classroom. I would begin from there.

    Comment by Barbara | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  2. When you mentioned ideas come from somewhere and people are repeating stuff others have already said, it helped explain the author, reader, and the subject for me. As subjects, we’re born into a big cultural ball of meaning where we are subject to our surroundings. The author who writes can be governed by the same culture that the reader and subject read. Also, the statement about poetry being subjected to some form of government is suggestive of Foucault’s theory of how power influences what is written and how something is read. Sorry if this didn’t make sense, but, basically, it helped me see how it’s just all connected.

    Comment by Amy VH | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  3. Indeed, I think it’s absolutely necessary to consider the occasion of this ‘occasional’ poem. Before I attack or embark upon Alexander’s poem, I want to bring to mind the man of the day for a moment. Barack Obama probably became president because of his positively brilliant speech delivery. He talks to us, the nation, as if we were 1. adults 2. smart adults 3. smart adults who have thought of this before. He gives us the impression that he’s merely reiterating ideas of unity, progress and generosity that we always held true in our personal and national conscience.

    As Paul Krugman points out in Stuck in the Muddle: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/opinion/23krugman.html, Obama’s Inauguration Day speech was somewhat perplexing in its insistence that we take responsibility for our “collective failure to make hard choices.” Krugman reminds us that it was the fat cats on Wall Street who blind-sided the American people, and in turn, the world. Krugman offers his disappointment at not hearing much of reassurance in his speech.

    Personally, I was entirely captivated by Obama the day he became my president. And the reasons for this are twofold. First, the content touched me. Despite Jon Stewart accurately showing that this speech was eerily reminiscent of George W’s speeches on freedom and American greatness, I bought into it when Obama pointed to the nation’s collective failures. For, who among us can’t point to a hundred personal failures and a hundred selfish moments where we might have been more thoughtful of the repercussions of our choices? I interpreted Obama’s speech as an effort to level the field. With one sentence he placed blame on everyone as opposed to a select few. With that, he unified the country. He then built a path for the lot of us to travel home again, where we are all equal, all accountable, all capable and all wise to our recent history of irresponsibility.

    The second reason his speech worked for me was because of his expertly-paced, rhythmic delivery. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” He spoke with clarity when he described policy and with vigor and punch when he spoke in metaphors. Perhaps it’s trite, but one of the reasons I love my new president is because he knows how to use repetition and how to make me believe what I’m hearing is more than political. In turn, the main reason I stopped listening to Elizabeth Alexander’s poem three lines in was because her delivery suggests she knew nothing of her audience that day.

    She spoke as if she had a lozenge in her throat, which she had to shift from one side of her mouth to the other before she could move on to the next word. Her poem was entirely lost on me for its slow choppy execution. I couldn’t stand to listen to it, as a lover of poetry, when I immediately realized how disconnected she was from her onlookers. And of course, her task was impossibly difficult. Write a poem to follow Obama’s speech. Sheesh! America doesn’t like poetry and they don’t like strangers. America likes songs and celebrities. And so, I wonder, since Alexander surely knew this, why she chose to hack her poem to bits when she stood up there on January 20th.

    Even the title she hacked to pieces – Praise. Song. For The Day. Now that I know that an African praise song is a celebration of the life of person typically done in a call-and-response style, thanks to Books Blog, I’m all the more disappointed in Alexander’s poem. Where was my call and response? She wasn’t speaking to the people on the mall or in the television. Instead, she was speaking to those people who weren’t listening because they were busy doing their jobs.
    The teacher directing the students, the farmer in the field, and those who died before they got to experience such a wondrous day in American history were those she called out to. Of course, they weren’t listening, and very justifiably so. They were at work or dead. So, of course they couldn’t respond to her appeal to them. I would argue that her recognition of those who were doing something else, or not doing anything was the only truly interesting and complex point in her poem. It works for me. Oh, they’re too busy making America work to respond. Oh, they died before they had a chance to respond.
    However, January 20th was not the day to call out to people who couldn’t respond. Many say she echoed Obama with a safe and steady poem. I suggest that she missed an opportunity to call out to those in the audience and get a response the way our president did. He may not have said things that made sense to everyone, but he spoke to the people who showed up to listen. Alexander talked poet talk, and it made no sense to me.
    By contrast, the civil rights leader Reverend Lowery’s cute rhymes did more the work of poetry for meon that day –
    “in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get 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.”

    Comment by Dara | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  4. To respond, I really like Barbara’s point that the word “love” can mean so many different things depending on the location of its utterance. And I also think that word had a lot of potential for Alexander’s poem, but she left it dangling. I’m reminded of Raymond Carver’s story “What we talk about when we talk about love,” which I read way back my freshman year colllege, though he was meditating on eros, while you and Alexander are talking about agape (two very difference senses of the word.)

    Amy, I think you’re exactly right about Foucault and about how power influences the content of a poem… and often what’s missing from the poem. And I think Langston Hughes’s poem actually draws attention to that power relation.

    Dara, I really like your point about how Alexander invokes a genre (the African-American praise song) which usually includes a call-and-response, but she doesn’t perform any call-and-response herself. How different and more energizing a performance it would have been if she had actually involved the thousands of people in the audience in her poem. Wow! Imagining what it could have been sends shivers down my spine.

    Comment by steventhomas | February 3, 2009 | Reply


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