Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Poem

Elizabeth Alexander's poem is all the buzz in the poetry world, with plenty of critiques from armchair poets. I thought the poem was lovely-- especially to look at it later in print; I can't fathom the pressures of writing such a poem.

We so rarely see poetry at public events like this that no one knows what to do with poets, I think. And as poets, we aren't used to thinking about poetry as a speech act. What is the poem's purpose? Those are rare words in our discussions. And why? Why are we adverse to thinking that a poem might not only be beautiful, it might also be of use.

I would have loved to have heard the poem earlier in the ceremony. By the time Elizabeth read, Obama had given his speech, and many people were packing up to go. An inaugural poem would be well received either just after the opening prayer or first in the ceremony. Such a poem could serve as a type of incantation that opens the heart so the rest of the ceremony can be felt-- a naming the moment, a calling us to be present in our bodies.

On the other hand... one of the very first acts for Obama as President was to listen to a poem. How great is that?

------- Melissa Tuckey

Here is E. Ethelbert Miller's reading of THE POEM:


Everyone has a comment on Elizabeth Alexander's poem today. Many have comments about her "performance" or lack of. I found everyone comparing her words to Whitman, Frost and Angelou. However, one name that was not mentioned was Gil Scott-Heron. First, Alexander's poem should be connected to the closing lines of Barack Obama's speech. Can we get a coda here?Obama quotes George Washington -and it seems like a Valley Forge moment. It's Winter in America. Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" echoes this:

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

Now let's bring in Gil and his deep voice, singing:

And now it's winter
Winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
It's winter
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
'Cause nobody knows what to say
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Winter in America

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Look like it's hoping
Hoping for some rain

We seem to be trapped in winter right now. It is cold outside.Alexander's poem is not a blueprint for the future. It isn't the visionary poem I was thinking she might write. Others will do this. I found Alexander doing what Obama did in his address. Alexander stands in front of us as mother and comforter. An ordinary woman in extraordinary times? This complements the humility expressed by Obama. For a moment Elizabeth Alexander is not a Yale professor she is a woman going about her daily work. She hears the music created by the people. If her words seem more prose than poetry, it's because she is saying it plain. This is a praise song in which the words of remembrance do the heavy lifting. Alexander's poem informs us to celebrate the moment in its Buddhist and sweet Christian dress. Incorporated are the basic teachings of all good people:

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

If we are to pursue King's dream then we must continue to believe in the Beloved Community.
Alexander reminds us of this. Yes the mightiest word is love. It seems to be Divine Love- for the poet yesterday told us to look beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light.

Maybe here is where Elizabeth Alexander becomes not Gwendolyn Brooks but Lucille Clifton. As I listened to Elizabeth recite her poem yesterday - I thought of the light that had come to my friend at this historical moment. I thought about how Aretha had the hat but Alexander had the poem.

And the poem guided us towards the light, and we were all moving forward - as one and as Americans.

In the Spring of our beginning - Anything can be made, any sentence begun.

-- E. Ethelbert Miller


Sarah Browning said...

Thank you, Melissa and Ethelbert, for these thoughts. Just what I've been thinking, that the plain speaking was intentional, was exactly the notion of the poem itself, that we have what we need as a nation and as a world, to move forward: we have love, we have "cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." Let us sing.

So It Shall Be Written said...

Melissa & Ethelbert -

Thanks for your thoughts. I also loved the poem. The more I read it, the more I love it. Her images are so simple, so common, in the best sense. It was all of us: mother and son waiting for a bus, teachers, the music of wooden spoons on oil drums. She took all of our ordinary selves and pulled us into that widening circle of light. I found that beautiful.

Yesterday, my Creative Writing 2 class discussed the poem. These are high school seniors who are serious about writing. At first, after only hearing the poem, they thought it was "ok." The more they talked about what they liked about it, they realized they loved it. They are all-stars! So is the poem.

In fact, in honor of the poem, I assigned them all to write an "occasional poem." So naturally, they're either writing about graduation or Valentine's Day.

Beth Wellington said...

Thanks, Melissa and Ethelbert, for your words on this poem. I've linked to you at