Thursday, January 22, 2009

Parsing the 'Praise Song'

I wanted to take a minute to re-view Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day" and share a few thoughts about what I thought was going on. Already there are several other critiques on the web, mostly negative, such as this one, (which includes video of her reading), or this humorous poetic take . There were a few positive reviews like this one by E. Ethelbert Miller (scroll down a bit). The correct text of the poem can be found here.

Many of the reviews focused on her reading of the poem and found her performance lacking. I too, would have preferred a more conversational cadence and pace, especially given that the poem's diction was prosy in places. Overall I thought she did a decent job reading the poem, she spoke loudly and clearly and made no obvious mistakes, despite reading before the single largest live audience for the reading of a poem in the history of the world. Something that might make a few folk nervous. It was also very cold, about 25 degrees and not an audience that came to hear a poem, two factors which work against a slower paced reading style.

As far as the poem itself, my initial reactions were that the prosy diction helped the non-literary crowd to get into the poem, that the poem was a little too long, and that it fizzled about 3/4s of the way through. Given how difficult it is to write a great or even very good occasional poem, and given the gravity and historic nature of the occasion in question, I thought the poem was pretty good, but contained more than could be taken in at first hearing. The Malcolm X allusion "Say it Plain" I recognized right away and loved, as well as the allusions to the Bible "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and the aphorism taught to medical students "First do no harm", I knew that "Take no more than you need" was an allusion, but was unfamiliar with the source.

Having actually had the opportunity to peruse the text, my opinion of the piece has grown. Being familiar with her work, I know that Alexander is a poet of both great skill and care, thus it was not surprising to note that the poem is comprised of forty-three lines, loosely in iambic pentameter (mostly 9, 10, and 11 syllables) and arranged into 14 tercets, plus one final orphan line. That the body of the poem is 43 lines is no coincidence, since Alexander is smart enough to know that while Obama is the 44th President of these United States, he is the 43rd person to serve as such. This is due to Grover Cleveland serving two non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th Presidents.
The poem's form, a praise song, is common throughout Africa and especially West Africa, although they are usually written in praise of people, living or dead. Thus a praise song for the occasion mimics the Sankofa bird, a way to look both backwards and forward simultaneously. A way to honor her heritage as 'griot' while also honoring a momentous event. The poem opens quietly amid the bustle of everday events and everyday speech moving on to notice quotidian noise and the heritage of even daily speech. The third stanza specifically denotes some daily tasks
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning /
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire /
From here it moves to bucket drummers and other forms of music. Next, we encounter three instances of people waiting on the cusp of some event. The poem then establishes the primacy of language in human encounters. At this point, the beginning of the seventh stanza, the poem shifts it focus from contemporary everyday events to a collective 'We" that is in motion or transition. The poem recognizes the contribution of those who:
said / I need to see what's on the other side./

I know there's something better down the road./

The speaker notes the need for a "place where we are safe", but then cautions "
We walk into that which we cannot yet see."

It is here finally that the poem begins to acknowledge the occasion before it, the tone shifting from the conversational to the oratorical. Line 25 opens with an allusion to both Malcolm X (whose favorite phrases included "Make it Plain") and the African-American Oratorical tradition, by way of reference to the documentary and book 'Say it Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches' which examines said tradition from Booker T. Washington to Barack Obama. Given that 'X' is the 24th letter of the alphabet, I doubt that the placement of this allusion is arbitrary. The next two stanzas, the ninth and tenth acknowledge the contributions of all who have made this day possible. Alexander's skill is obvious here in the way she denotes occupations that any American can relate to, but that have special resonance for blacks, particularly those of her parents generation. Lines such as
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

are especially apt in this regard. It is after these stanzas, in my opinion, that the poem makes its first misstep, in the opening of stanza eleven with "
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day."
This line commits a common error which sinks many poems, that of stating the Theme of the poem in prose. There are few things which will unravel the effect of the careful embroidery of verse than stating the meaning of the poem, in the poem, in prose. The negative impact of this line is compounded by the fact that its specific language steals the thunder of the poem's last line. This is made more unfortunate by the particularly evocative image of the "hand lettered sign' in the next line, and the quiet, but duly noted feminism of the stanza's last line. In the following stanza the poem examines three aphoristic creeds; "Love thy neighbor as thyself" from the Bible, "First do no harm" from the medical profession and "Take no more than you need" from the environmental sustainability movement. The last (and probably least familiar to most folk) of those is from a quote by Paul Hawken "Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm the environment, make amends if you do." The stanza closes out with a supposition
What if the mightiest word is love?
The penultimate stanza elaborates exactly what type of love the speaker has in mind and again a slight technical glitch appears. Given the eventual import of the poem's last line, this stanza could have magnified the closing impact by having the order of its last two lines reversed, thus reading
love with no need to pre-empt grievance,
love that casts a widening pool of light.

Placing the "widening light" last in the stanza helps to foreshadow its importance and make it more resonant and easier to recall. There has been some grumbling by critics that the 'light' image is cliched, but I think handled differently it functions well enough. The last stanza is in my mind particularly well written, especially the image of "today's sharp sparkle, this winter air" then the three images of transition. The last line "
praise song for walking forward in that light.

Seems to me to just miss the mark, with the inclusion of the word "forward" a bit much. Perhaps something like
a praise song for walking into that light.

like a praise song for walking in that light.

may have worked better. Last lines are oft times so crucial to the success or failure of a poem, often disproportionally so.

In interviews prior to Inauguration Day, the poet had stated her intention to write not just a poem for the occasion, but a poem that would resonate past the day. It is the opinion of this critic that she succeeded in that endeavor. The poem, in my mind rewards multiple and close readings, growing more powerful with each one. It is not ostentatious in its learning and is subtle with its allusions. Sometimes a poet who writes in this manner pays the price of readers overlooking or missing the work's less obvious qualities. Is it a home run? Probably not, more like a line drive double into the gap, albeit off a very difficult pitcher to hit. Given the pressure she was under and the enormity of the situation, I think the poet has acquitted herself quite well.
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