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Love or hate it? Debate Still Swirls Around Inaugural Poem

Even before its official publication, Dr. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem for the inauguration of President Barack Obama is already providing a real-life specimen for creative writing classes to dissect and poets to debate.

The poem, which will be published by independent nonprofit Graywolf Press on Feb. 6, set off a wave of analysis and criticism on blogs and in classrooms across the country. However the poem is already widely available on the Internet.

The critics did not like it, did not understand it or did not like her delivery of it, according to a perusal of blogs and articles.

Some even regarded it as a flop.

“Two minutes after it was over I couldn’t remember it” ran one of the kindlier reviews of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem at Obama’s inauguration. Others were more direct. “Inept,” “horrible” and “trivial” fizzed the blogs,” reported The Sunday Times (of London) reported Feb. 1, two weeks after Alexander delivered her composition before millions of people at Obama’s inauguration.

Everyone appears to have an opinion, including leading poets, academics and their students.

Several educators contacted by Diverse defended the quality of “Praise Song for the Day” as free-verse poetry and its poignant message, as well as Alexander’s quiet, evenly paced delivery. Some note that it was a poem written for the occasion, a spectacular honor and a daunting task.

“That is incredible for someone to write a poem in that short a time with that kind o f pressure and for her to be able to approach the mike with the largest audience she could ever imagine and deliver the goods, and not stumble and fumble,”  says Dr. Tony Medina, associate professor of creative writing at Howard University. “I don’t know why people can’t give her credit and appreciate what she did.”

Alexander, a professor of African American studies at Yale University, was only the fourth poet ever to read at a presidential inauguration, and the second Black woman, after Maya Angelou who read in 1993 at President Bill Clinton’s ceremony. The others were Robert Frost for President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Miller Williams, for Clinton, in 1997. Alexander is the author of five collections of poetry, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist American Sublime.

Some educators are already using the inaugural poem as a teaching tool for writing courses.

The day after the inauguration, Quraysh Ali Lansana, director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing and associate professor of English and creative writing at Chicago State University, introduced it at the first session of the semester for his class on literary criticism.

“Before we opened a text book, I had them read the poem silently,” Lansana says. “I had a student read it and I read it, honoring the way it was read [by Alexander]. My students had a greater understanding upon that explication than when they first heard it. Does that make the poem a failure? Not at all.”

It was, however, “a poet’s poem,” adds Lansana, who has published several poetry collections.

“It’s a pretty fine poem actually for the moment, but in terms of the moment, was it a poem that would we ‘read’ upon initial hearing?” Lansana adds, “No, it’s a poem that takes a bit of work, a bit of lifting … Does that make it a bad poem? Not at all. Does that make it a poem that in some ways worked in that moment and in some ways didn’t? Yes.”

Doughtry Long, a poet and high school teacher in Trenton, N.J., introduced it to his 11th-grade students.

“I asked them to read it and I got a blank silence. They scratched their heads,” he says. “They didn’t understand it. Then I read it. ‘Oh, now I understand it,’ they said,” Long tells Diverse. “They heard it on TV. They read it and when I read it, it came into focus. I had them read the poem three, five or six times, then we could deconstruct to see what it said, and then how it was said. What did the poem say, how did it say it, and how was it delivered on the instrument of the voice? “

A teacher for 28 years, Long has been published in Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, an anthology published by Cave Canem, an organization that sponsors programs to support Black poets. Alexander was a founding faculty member and former board member.

As for the critics, he says, “I think what people may be reacting to is the delivery, because on paper it works. She read it as she wanted it to be read.”

Lansana compares Alexander’s recitation to Maya Angelou’s reading of her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” for Clinton’s first inauguration.

“Maya was emotional and passionate and full of charge and verve, but the poem was fairly difficult to follow … ” Lansana says. “Elizabeth is a poet who renders her work very much in the way that many poets have been schooled or trained, certainly many academics, which is to read the poem and sort of let the words live on their own, without the emotional emphasis placed in certain areas. …. It is a school of thought for many poets and academics, and I am an academic, but I don’t ascribe to this approach to reading work.”

At Howard, Medina says, the delivery was appropriate for her and for the occasion.

“You don’t have to shout and do back flips to get a message across,” Medina adds. “That’s what she wanted to do, not make it about her but about the occasion, just be a vessel and deliver the message. This is the message we need to have for this day: We are in a world that is so complicated, all these wars, and we are tied up economically, shackled together. We are all going down together. We need each other to push ourselves up.”

He recalls that one of his students “felt it wasn’t rousing enough.”

“I think that is superficial,” says Medina. “We do live in a society, especially in Black culture, where we uphold style over content most of the time and we need to learn to listen. If people actually listen, they would hear the message. I think it echoed what Barack Obama was saying — the message of love … . The campaign was that type of teachable moment.”


Alexander reading at the inauguration:

Maya Angelou reads at 1993 inauguration:

Commentary and analysis:

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