… has asked her to elaborate on why the inauguration day poem was so bad. Here goes.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
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.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

*********************************

Why is this a bad poem?

Forget delivery. Could have been delivered in a shimmery soprano by Kathleen Battle. Look at the language. Look at where UD began to laugh.

She began to laugh here:

picked the cotton and the lettuce

“Why lettuce?” she asked out loud. No one answered. UD‘s alone at the seashore. Only the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the tide replied.

“Why not?” the tide replied. “Why not? Why not lettuce and peanuts and coffee beans and rice?”

“Well … cotton, you know… I get cotton. It’s a reference to slavery. But lettuce…? Man does not live by bread alone, says Woody Allen: Frequently there must be a beverage. It’s like that. What my kid would call random.”

“I see what you mean, UD. But why? Why does it come across as random?”

“Here’s why. The poem lacks a metaphor. It lacks a controlling dominant image. It also lacks a controlling mood. Its title promises a song. A song of praise. That’s a bit vague, but okay. We’re ready. We’ve encountered songs of praise before, and we’re ready for another one. We expect an upbeat mood, etc. But where’s the singing here? Where’s the praising? Where’s anything? We’re looking for a way to ground ourselves in this poem. We’re looking for an image that recurs, or an idea that recurs. We’re looking for language that holds together by means of rhythmic repetition — after all, it tells us it’s a song — or by means of a controlling metaphor through which all of the poem’s images can be understood so that when we get to the end of the poem we feel we’ve had a coherent experience. Something comprehensible, graspable, has been said… Forget beauty. Beauty would have been nice, but there isn’t any here. Plain speech and all that. Okay. But at least give us a coherent utterance.”

“You’re being awfully harsh, UD. Karlson’s right. You’re going to have to elaborate.”

“Line by line?”

“Line by line”

“Hokay.”

************************************

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

First off, forget rhyme. You’re not going to get a song that rhymes. What about intriguing, beautiful language instead? Language that sings? Poetry that doesn’t rhyme is fine, but poetry lacking all lilt, all linguistic oomph, is not fine. Especially if its title tells us it’s a song.

The idea in this first stanza is that we live quotidian inauthentic frustrated lives – stuck in daily business, asocial… Sometimes we catch each other’s eyes, and sometimes we speak, but it’s no different from not speaking or not catching each other’s eyes. Rather depressing, this.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Yet more depressing. In place of speech, mere noise. We note already the use of repetition in this poem. And yet – why? In what way does it strengthen or underline or shift in some noteworthy way what the poem wants to say by having it say certain things twice? I see no point to the repetition.

Many people report having been bored by this poem. Pointless repetition is one of the reasons.

Now we get a new image: bramble, thorn. When we speak, our words are the accumulated words of all of our ancestors, and OUCH. They hurt. They are brambles, thorns. Bleeding tongues. Not pretty. Odd in a praise song. Vague thoughts in the reader’s mind of Jesus here. Should there be? Will there be a Christian element? Er, a little maybe, at the end. But the poet does nothing with it. Which is the other big problem with this poem. Random stabs in the direction of many images, none of which becomes a symbol or metaphor, because each is dropped as soon as mentioned, and no shaping, therefore, of a larger message takes place.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Put this in the form of a sentence. Same deal. It is a sentence, that’s why. It’s not poetry. Poetry is a special sort of utterance in which plain prose is lifted up into something that sings. This is flat speech. Not poetry. It tries, with ye olde repetition, to be poetry at the end of the sentence — repairing the things in need of repair. But because there’s no content here beyond simple statement, and no poetic elevation of the prose in which it becomes suggestive of more than mere propositional statement, it just sits there, looking stupid. Looking like a tautology. We repair… things that need to be repaired! We speak or… we don’t speak! If there’s no larger meaning, or at least larger implication, that you can lend your language, you’re lost.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

Again, the sense of arbitrary observation rendered in dull language. We begin to detect a slight theme — the difficulty of expressing ourselves — weighed down by ancestors, by mutual incomprehension, by the dull dailiness of life’s business… But then we get images of waiting and watching… What are they about? And we get a teacher who speaks to her students telling them to start writing… And?… Do we condemn the teacher? She perhaps has contributed to the linguistic dullness, the desperate attempts to communicate, that this song of praise describes…

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

Well, it was thorn and bramble before; now it’s still spiny, but also smooth. If spiny means painfully derivative, what does smooth mean? And note once again the deadly repetition that feels not like a song but like a kindergarten teacher repeating things for our slow-witted benefit. words, words… consider, reconsider… This poem is talking down to us.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

This fails to make sense spatially, and in a variety of other ways. Who crosses highways?

And is it the crossing we’re supposed to be thinking about — Like the chicken, we want to see what’s on the other side — or is it travellin’ down that highway? I know there’s something better down the road. Across or down? See – it’s just muddy. Poetry is supposed to be language at its most carefully deployed. This is a mess.

And it gets worse. Put aside the cliches that comprise this entire stanza. Note instead another pointless transition — again, her transitions come across as pointless because the poem is unstructured by any dominant image or mood — We need to find a place where we are safe. Where did that idea come from? Who said we were in danger? This reads as bathos.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
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.

Okay, this is a promising moment. The stifled or failed or painful speech that went before is now set aside, and we are enjoined to say it plain. Sing it out. But if you introduce your stanzas like this, the reader has a right to expect a reasonable elevation of language at this point. It feels like a climax. Yet we get more dully reported examples of human effort. The ugliness of the final two lines – “brick by brick the glittering edifices / they would then keep clean and work inside of.” – cannot be evaded. Brick by brick is a terrible cliche. And ending her sentence with the deadly little creepy crawly of? Really. Look at this language. Read it aloud. And tell me how it could possibly be understood as poetic.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

This is about as good as it gets. She at least alludes to her title. But the stanza remains a compendium of cliches.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

Because the poet has been unable to rise above cliches, the ancient and beautiful truths she cites here – love thy neighbor, etc. – become as it were infected by her trite linguistic universe. They too wither into cliche. Then we suddenly get love — again, since the metaphorical ground hasn’t been prepared for it, it just jumps out as the next thing the poet grabs — which, in a stale version of Wallace Stevens’ calm darkens among waterlights, becomes a widening pool of light. And why at this late stage in the poem the pool image? Again — nothing in the poem has done anything with that liquidity. As a result it’s just a bore — part of a grab bag of images which together amount to little more than sentimentality. As to the glorious word pre-empt, no comment.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

The poet pulls herself together here and concludes by returning to her inadequately expressed idea about self-expression.

A poem mainly about the importance of overcoming the difficulty of expressing ourselves should be able to express itself. There lies the depressive dullness at the core of this lament: The poem tells us that we’ll never make any progress toward the light.

*****************************

Update: Here’s another explanation of why this poem failed.

*****************************

Another update: Well, I thought “lettuce” was random, because I recall everyone in my town boycotting grapes, not lettuce. I take the point that lettuce is another clear reference to oppressed farmworkers.

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27 Responses to “Stephen Karlson, UD’s Blogpal…”

  1. Bill Harshaw Says:

    I took the "lettuce" to be a reference to Caesar Chavez, so a one-line inclusion of black slaves and Latino farmworkers. Perhaps the "laid the tracks" refers to Chinese and Irish workers on the transcontinental railways? And maybe the "bricks" refers to the slaves who helped build the Capitol? None of which detracts from your point.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Although Chavez also boycotted lettuce, I think grapes would be the fruit most readers would associate with his name.

    I think you’re right that the tracks mean to allude to Chinese workers (I don’t think of the Irish so much as the Chinese in this context). I think going from the bricks of the glittering edifices to the Capitol is too much of a stretch.

  3. jim Says:

    "Yet we get more dully reported examples of human effort."

    I think you’re right that this is the key stanza. But it isn’t just examples of human effort. It’s examples of the efforts of oppressed non-white people: Chinese, Black, Mexican (grapes would include the Okies — evoke "Grapes of Wrath" — lettuce doesn’t), Native American, Hispanic cleaning women.

    Empson’s remark that Proletarian literature, when it’s any good, is Covert Pastoral seems to be relevant here. That’s what Alexander is aiming at, I think: the simple lives of the oppressed (the non-white oppressed, even) bringing forth noble truths and, with the elevation of one who could be identified with them, that nobility permeating the corrupt court so that good becomes possible.

  4. david foster Says:

    "Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
    who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

    picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
    brick by brick the glittering edifices"

    ..somewhat similar thoughts are expressed far more poetically in Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy.

  5. University Diaries » Welcome, Atlantic Magazine Readers. Says:

    […] A professor of English describes university life.Aim: To change things. UD at Inside Higher Ed About Margaret Soltan Other Writings Subscribe to UD’s Feeds ← Previous Post: Stephen Karlson, UD’s Blogpal… […]

  6. KMMT Says:

    I was watching in a classroom full of fellow high school English teachers. About three lines in one teacher exclaimed "Really?" and I looked around the room at disappointed faces. We spend so much time trying to convince our students that poetry is like a prize fighter and there on the screen was the perfect example of why so many students see poetry as thin, pale words gasping for life on a page.

  7. theprofessor Says:

    The woman needs to take a close look at the glittering edifices–the glittering ones ain’t made of bricks anymore and haven’t been for a long time. The whole effort is bizarrely anachronistic.

    To me, there are weird echoes of "I Sing the Body Electric" here.

  8. Mr Punch Says:

    Bill is right, I’m sure. Lettuce at worst a close second to grapes.

  9. Christopher Vilmar Says:

    “Why lettuce?” she asked out loud. No one answered. UD’s alone at the seashore. Only the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the tide replied.

    “Why not?” the tide replied. “Why not? Why not lettuce and peanuts and coffee beans and rice?”
    UD, you should be happy: that’s more of an answer than poor old Matthew Arnold ever got on his beach.

  10. quiescere Says:

    OT: I linked to this post elsewhere in a limited conversation about the inauguration, but I don’t know how to create a trackback. In the future, I would like to generate proper attribution automatically if you could tell me how.

  11. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks for the link — I’ll ask my blogmistress about the trackback and let you know.

    UD

  12. Stephen Karlson Says:

    Thanks for spelling that out. Ouch. I feel the high school English faculty’s pain.

  13. Chas S. Clifton Says:

    I agree with Bill Harshaw on the lettuce reference, and I concluded that political correctness was more important than the Muse in this case. The whole poem was an example of heroic pedestrianism. Funny that the Rev. Lowery had more poetry in his prayer than the official poet had in her poem.

  14. Melanie Says:

    Hey! Thanks for linking to my blog. I will do the same.

    The trouble came when she got so wrapped up in what she THOUGHT she was accomplishing, that she wasn’t actually accomplishing it. Her litany of ordinary people was vaguely reminiscent of Whitman, but her prose lacked the lyricism to back it up.
    Leaves of Grass:
    "The married couple sleep calmly in their bed, he with his palm on
    the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the hip of
    the husband/The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed/The men sleep lovingly side by side in theirs,/and the mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt…"
    He describes the most boring thing imaginable: people, sleeping! Still, the lines have beats, the repetition makes them into rhythms, and we see that even though these people are sleeping, they are alive, they love, and they are beautiful. Repetition in Alexander’s poem accomplishes none of this!

    Exactly as you asked…what are we supposed to think about the farmer, the waiting woman and child, and the teacher? Are they related to the day? And if they are, do we embrace them as extensions of ourselves, or do we condemn them for not stopping for history?

    The whole thing was very confusing, and I definitely agree that some sort of dominant metaphor could have dramatically improved the poem.

  15. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks, Melanie. I thought your take on the poem was great. What you’ve added in the comment is also to the point… I find myself thinking not so much about Whitman as about James Agee, whose prose is more poetic than Alexander’s poetry, and who – in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – provides plenty of passages about America that might have worked beautifully for an inaugural reading.

  16. Townsend Harris Says:

    Lettuce? Certainly an allusion to La Raza, following so hard on the heels of cotton. Latin Americans are on track this century to become the largest racial group in the US. The inaugural poet’s checking off boxes.

    Cotton and lettuce? I prefer tobacco and grapes, also harvested by, respectively, enslaved and exploited people.

  17. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I take the point, from Townsend and other commenters, that there’s a politically correct logic to lettuce. Would that there had been a poetic logic as well. “Tobacco,” for instance, Townsend, is a beautiful word. But I guess that can’t go in the poem because smoking is so evil.

  18. Margaret Soltan Says:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=173782

  19. Ahistoricality Says:

    The "lettuce" may have been an oblique reference to McCain.

  20. Randy Malamud Says:

    I liked the poem. I wrote a review,
    http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i22/22b09901.htm
    explaining what I thought worked about it. I think it’s a subtle poem, and (call me overly academic, but) I think the provocations & reactions that it has sparked are a tribute to its effectiveness. People arguing about poetry — I like that! I agree that in style and tone it’s different from what a lots of people wanted and expected (John Williams hit much closer to the mark on this count with his musical composition), but if you take the poem for what it is, I think there are some thoughtful and original ideas simmering inside. As I wrote the review, and spent many hours grappling with it and squinting at it, I came to like it more. There’s some good stuff here. . . . that’s my two cents.

  21. after all, a place for the genuine « The Edge of the American West Says:

    […] (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs […]

  22. Daniel Klotz Says:

    I’m appreciative to Patrick Gillespie (http://duplicitous46xyprimate.blogspot.com/2009/01/elizabeth-alexanders-inaugural-poem.html) for pointing me to your review here.

    I wrote two reactions to Elizabeth Alexander’s poem on my blog, and in the first one (posted the afternoon after the inauguration), I agreed with you that it was a bad poem and unsuited for the occasion. In the second one, http://danielklotz.com/2009/01/22/meaning-of-elizabeth-alexanders-inaugural-poem/, I conducted a close reading similar to yours here. I really enjoyed reading yours here, and it’s interesting to me to see how different our conclusions were. I spent a good deal of time on the structure and flow of the poem, before going line by line. I think that Ms. Alexander did spend too little time thinking of the phrases and lines. Instead, as her plodding reading style highlighted, she gave more attention to individual words. But, she also gave attention to structure and flow, which I think a line-by-line reading alone necessarily misses.

    I’m not an academic, and one of the things I have been looking to academics to comment on is the influences on the form of the poem. What is this "West African" traditional mode she claimed to me writing in, and does that help us make sense of the poem or appreciate it?

    I’m with Randy Malamud (above), when he writes, "I think the provocations & reactions that it has sparked are a tribute to its effectiveness." My blog has been slammed with visits since I wrote the two posts on Ms. Alexander’s poem, including hundreds resulting from Google searches about the poem’s theme and meaning, as well as for analysis, explication and explanation of the poem. A lot of people did not "get it" right away (myself included), but a lot of people are also giving it a second, third, and fourth read. Whatever our individual responses to the poem, I have been encouraged by the level of discourse its inclusion in the inaugural ceremonies has prompted.

  23. L Beilstein Says:

    I think it was a poem about broken promises. Ha ha. It promised to be a poem. I had great expectations as an American dullard who didn’t like poetry but learned to like it over the years. I thought it stunk. Is that plain speak enough? I told my college-age student that a grafetti artist in a restroom stall could do better. Again, the age-old question: Couldn’t they find ANYBODY else? I can write better poetry.

  24. Frances Cherman (aka Bunnyslippers) Says:

    Daniel Klotz wrote: I’m with Randy Malamud (above), when he writes, "I think the provocations & reactions that it has sparked are a tribute to its effectiveness."

    So you’re saying that because the poem prompted so many negative reactions, it must be good? That’s absurdly tautological. Is that all we expect from a piece of art these days to qualify it as having merit: that it provoke a reaction–any reaction at all? If so, any number of inaugural performances might have been even more "effective," for example, Britney Spears doing a lap dance for Dick Cheney.

    Let’s not confuse the merits of lively discussion with the merits of the poem.

  25. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Frances: Absolutely.

  26. Frances Cherman (aka Bunnyslippers) Says:

    Thanks, Margaret. You may also be interested in my comments (as "Bunnyslippers) here: https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=746549356331646438&postID=5627525288230002673&cID=158884984751982531&page=1&isPopup=true&pli=1

  27. University Diaries » “I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of where poetry comes from and how it arrives, but I do know it is the highest calling of a cerebral, emotional, aesthetic existence.” Says:

    […] most notorious recent bad poem, the Obama inaugural poem, lacked all sensibility; and though its language was also dull and its ideas shopworn, it […]

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