The hype, the spectacle, the crowds, the celebrities, the moment, the poem… this is what an inauguration should be like. I honestly don’t remember a thing about any past inaugurations so I guess this is my first real “transfer of power.” Not bad.
And I had no idea that the inaugural poet isn’t a defacto part of the proceedings. I always assumed there’s been one from the jump. But my poet education continues and I find out how rare it is to have a poet drop some verse at a big event. Who knew?
So as the whole world is watching and waiting for Obama to take the reigns—kinda ceremoniously at that, hasn’t he been running the show since the day after the election? If Wall St buys on the rumor and sells on the news, more rumor & news has come from change.gov then the White House—and usher in the next phase of American Politics, I’m counting the minutes till Elizabeth Alexander ends the age of 9/11 Poetry and moves us forward into a new age of American Poetries.
My ringside seat is at an assembly of K-6 graders who have been ravenously pro-Obama since he got the Democratic Party nod. This same enthusiasm has them eager to see history happen in front of them and cheer when Barack Hussein Obama took the Oath of Office. (Yo, John Roberts, read the text right next time. And how come everybody is *still* so afraid to use the Prez’s middle name?)
Obama’s subsequent speech was short and straight to the point. No longer speaking the language of possibility but shifting to a sense of patriotic pragmatism, the President’s rhetoric still puts others to shame and he came across poised and ready to attack the mountain of trouble he’s inherited.
At this point, the students were pleased to have seen their main man rise to the top and talk the good talk. Months of campaigning and a tense Election Day (you know you didn’t dare to believe it till CNN/MSNBC/FOX NEWS told you it was true) have delivered the One and now the Kingdom can live happily ever after or somethin’ like that. Anyways, everyone was ready to move on get the show rolling as the Inaugural Poet is set to take the mic.
I, of course, was horrified. “Wait, wait, there is more. Poetry is about to take the stage. C’mon, guys! Guys?” Nah, I was pretty ready for it and, truth to tell, the upper grade kids stuck around and kept their eye on the TV waiting to see what would happen next. And why was I ready for the majority of indifference? Because just as sure as I know poetry can save a life, I know that I am well in the minority. It’ll be a long hard minute before poetry can rise up with Politics, Music, and Movies in the American Consciousness. And that’s the real deal in my book. Am I gonna stop trying to get to that minute? Hell no. But back to Elizabeth Alexander and The Poem.
My gut reaction after the poem and the general indifference was, “I wished they had put Ms Alexander up before the Oath of Office and she could have gotten some more shine.” Right here, right now, I’m glad she came on directly after Obama. Let history stand, the first poet to read a poem in the Age of the 44th President is Elizabeth Alexander. If the last eight years have been marked with blight and aggression, if they go down in Literary History as the “Era of 9/11 Poetry,” if we really believed we have turned a corner in the way we think, act and respond as a Nation, then the first words belong to a poet— Elizabeth Alexander.
Just as she said in the NY Times, Alexander went with a poem that has “integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.â€ In fact, she went even deeper and present a song that spoke to (shock!) her experience and (gasp!) what the election means to her. When Alexander says “us” she is invoking the deepest “I” she can, the one she can share with everyone who cried a little when Obama won the Election and who took time off of their busy first-day-back-at-work to see the moment happen. Alexander delivered her poem with as much grace as possible considering the poem is the epitome of the Newness. (All you haters out there: Try composing a commissioned poem you only have a couple of weeks to write and then deliver before thousands live and millions on the air, a poem you know will be scrutinized by every hater out there, and see how you would do.) Was is the best poem ever? Will it be the poem that puts poetry first in line in American Arts? Will it erase the Bush Years? Will it end war and hunger?
Probably not. And that’s OK because the measure of a good political poem is not in the second after it was uttered but its effects over time. Right now, just a little bit after its birth, this poem has people talking about poetry. Some say this poem didn’t speak to them, it didn’t live up to what they thought it should be, that Rev Joseph Lowery simple rhymes was the “real” poetry. (Lowery best give Big Bill Broonzy props for riffing from his lyrics of “Black, Brown and White,” jus sayin.) I hope all those folks seek out that poetry they feel does best speak to them. If even a few do then poetry, for everyone, will benefit. If that does happen, you can thank Elizabeth Alexander for stepping up and delivering.
I’m just catching the replays of Alexander’s poem and reading the text. I’m feeling it. More and more I’m feeling my America in it as she speaks of City, boomboxes, kids in school with pencils in hand. I’m feeling her invocation for the invisible workforce that drives this country. I’m feeling her call for more than rhetoric, for more than poems, but for hope. Word.
Like any good poem, there will be more praise and there will be more critique. I look forward to reading it. I hope to even write some of it as I am going with my straight gut on this one and living in the joy of poetry. Others will decry it as propaganda or substandard or unmemorable (even as they write about it). For them, and for every poet whose anchor is rooted in the muck of gripes, complaint and envy, I’ll refer to the words of President Barack Hussein Obama:
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply…
(Props to Reginald Harris for pointing this quote out)