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Adam Kirsch on the Inaugural Poem

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” …failed to live up to the standard of public, official verse. … The contemporary poet who set[s] out to write an official occasional poem … 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. … [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. … [Her poetry is] public in the worst sense–inauthentic, bureaucratic, rhetorical. So it was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem … with a cliché (“Each day we go about our business”), before going on to tell the nation “I know there’s something better down the road”; and pose the knotty question, “What if the mightiest word is ‘love’?”; and conclude with a classic instance of elegant variation: “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.” The poem’s argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity…

Margaret Soltan, January 21, 2009 10:39AM
Posted in: protect yourself from bad poetry

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4 Responses to “Adam Kirsch on the Inaugural Poem”

  1. Sherman Dorn Says:

    … and her delivery fit with the etherized, bureaucratic trait Kirsch pointed out.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    She used dreaded "poet voice," where you go up to the same pitch on every accented syllable, and accent words that don’t need to be:


    It was painful to listen to.

  3. Mr Punch Says:

    Inaugural poetry has not been a success — we’re. what oh-for-four, counting Frost’s problems. There must be a better way. Maybe we should just go with the bureaucratic approach, and have the incumbent poet laureate do it.

  4. Robert Crosman Says:

    In the New Yorker (2/9/15) Elizabeth Alexander has a moving account of her marriage to an Eritrean refugee, Ficre Gebreyesus, his sudden death of heart disease at fifty, and the ensuing grief of herself and their two sons. It’s moving, authentic, and not in the least bureaucratic. The happy fact of sun in his eyes led Frost to recite from memory at JFK’s inaugural, not the poem he had written for the occasion, but another poem, “The Gift Outright,” which is a fine poem, if somewhat, by today’s standards, imperialistic. “The land was ours, before we were the land’s”, it begins, raising the question of whose it was before it was “ours,” a question that would hardly occur to many European-Americans in 1961. But it accurately describes the psychological processes of taking over a new continent, while one is still as much at home mentally in the old country as in this new, still alien, land (with natives intermittently shooting at you). The difference between Frost and Alexander may be a matter of a greater versus a lesser talent (with which even she wd probably not disagree) But if Frost had been able to read the poem he made for the occasion, he might have fared no better than she did. An occasion can sometimes summon forth a good poem, but the problem is that whether it does so or not, you HAVE to recite it. She’d better, perhaps, have done what Frost was forced to do – read an older and better poem, even if it had no explicit connection to the occasion.

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