Adam Kirsch On Elizabeth Alexander's Bureaucratic Verse

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THE PLANK JANUARY 20, 2009

Adam Kirsch On Elizabeth Alexander's Bureaucratic Verse

There was
inevitably something imperial about the inauguration today: the praetorian pomp,
the Capitoline backdrop, the giant crowds, all seemed more redolent of Caesar
than George Washington. Even President Obama's speech, for all its predictable
poeticizing about America,
was not addressed simply to Americans; it was a message urbi et orbi, with sections clearly meant for the ears of
Europeans, Africans, and "the Muslim world." (If we were Romans, however, we
would have been much more troubled by the bad omen of Chief Justice Roberts and
Obama stumbling over the words of the oath of office; for the Romans, a ritual
was a ritual, and had to be done right.)

It was oddly
heartening, then, to see how completely Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem,
"Praise Song for the Day," (here's
the full text
) failed to live up to the standard of public, official verse
in which the Romans excelled. When Horace produced his Carmen Saeculare at the command of the Emperor Augustus, as part of
the festivities for the Secular Games in 17 B.C., he was happily placing his
gifts at the service of the new imperial regime, much as Virgil did when he
wrote the Aeneid. So, too, with the
Elizabethan poets, who poured their lyrics and masques at the feet of Gloriana.
In a monarchy, there is no shame for a poet, or for anyone else, in being the
monarch's servant.

In our
democratic age, however, poets have always had scruples about exalting leaders
in verse. Since the French Revolution, there have been great public poems in
English, but almost no great official poems. For modern lyric poets, whose
first obligation is to the truth of their own experience, it has only been
possible to write well on public themes when the public intersects, or
interferes, with that experience--when history usurps privacy. So Wordsworth in 1803, expecting the Grande
Armee to land in Kent at any
moment, struggled to balance his grievances against England
with his fears of France:

England! all nations in this charge agree:

But worse, more ignorant in love
and hate,                 

Far--far more abject, is thine
Enemy:

Therefore the wise pray for thee,
though the freight

Of thy offences be a heavy weight:

Oh grief that Earth's best hopes
rest all with Thee!

Likewise, in
1967, Robert Lowell wrote "Waking Early Sunday Morning" out of indignation at
what President Johnson and the Vietnam War were making of America:

Hammering military splendor,?

top-heavy Goliath in full armor -

?little redemption in the mass?

liquidations of their brass,?

elephant and phalanx moving?

with the times and still improving,?

when that kingdom hit the crash:?

a million foreskins stacked like trash.

Such poems honor
the public by bringing to bear on it the poet's private grief and aspiration.
The contemporary poet who set out to write an official occasional poem, on the
other hand, gives up the privacy in which modern poetry is born, without gaining
the authority and currency that used to be the advantages of the poet laureate
in Rome or England. Her verse is not public
but bureaucratic--that is to say, spoken by no one and addressed to no one.

"Praise Song for
the Day," the poem Elizabeth Alexander read this afternoon, was a perfect
specimen of this kind of bureaucratic verse. There was an extraordinary burden
of expectation attached to Alexander's poem; I don't recall Maya Angelou or
Miller Williams, the poets who read at Bill Clinton's inaugurations, getting
the kind of attention that Alexander received in the last few weeks. The
reason, I think, is that Obama's inauguration was just the kind of event that
might inspire genuine poetry: it was that rare moment when the public
intersected with the private for good instead of evil. And of course, Obama
himself has often been cast as a "poetic" figure, thanks to his eloquence and
the appeal of his image. Last January, E.J. Dionne wrote
that Obama represented poetry to Hillary Clinton's prose, a contrast that
became a standard trope of the campaign.

Alexander was an
inevitable choice to be Obama's laureate. Like Obama, Alexander is an establishment
figure-a professor at Yale, a Pulitzer Prize finalist--who is very conscious of
the ways she does not fit the usual establishment image--she is a black woman
in a field once dominated by white men. Like him, too, she has challenged the
establishment by joining it, rather than fighting it. Her best poems--especially
in her first, reputation-making book, The
Venus Hottentot--do not accept that there is an antagonism between
African-American "folk" culture and "high" culture. She has written admiringly
about figures like Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and Romare Bearden, who fused
the two, creating something new and distinctively American. "Ralph Ellison's
house is underground/next door to my house," she writes in her most recent
book, American Sublime. 

Yet Alexander
also suffers, as Ellison came to, from excessive self-consciousness about her
role as spokesman and example. As she writes in "Ars Poetica #92: Marcus Garvey
on Elocution":

To realize I was
trained for this,

Expected to
speak out, to speak well.

To realize, my
family believed

I would have
words for others.

But poetry is a
matter of having your own words, not of having words for others; and the
weakness of Alexander's work is precisely its consciousness of obligation. Her
poetic superego leads her to affirm piously, rather than question or challenge.
This weakness is precisely what made her a perfect, an all too perfect, choice
for inaugural poet. Indeed, in "Ars Poetica #1,002: Rally," published in 2005
when Barack Obama was still just a first-year Senator from Illinois, she
already imagines herself lecturing a crowd with inspirational banalities:

I dreamed a
pronouncement

about poetry and
peace.

"People are
violent,"

I said through
the megaphone

on the
quintessentially

frigid Saturday

to the rabble
stretching

all the way up
First.

"People do
violence

unto each other

and unto the
earth

and unto its
creatures.

Poetry," I
shouted, "Poetry,"

I screamed,
"Poetry

changes none of
that

by what it says

or how it says,
none.

But a poem is a
living thing

made by living
creatures...

and as life

it is all that
can stand

up to violence."

This poem,
written for a book and not for an inauguration, is already public in the worst
sense--inauthentic, bureaucratic, rhetorical. So it was no surprise to hear
Alexander begin her poem today with a clich

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