Elizabeth Alexander had a hard act to follow

Poetry tends to be a very polite enterprise, especially among the people who write it. It’s refreshing then to read an excoriating critique of Elizabeth Alexander, the poet tapped to deliver a new poem for Barack Obama’s historic inauguration.

The critic, Jack Foley, writing an open letter in the Contemporary Poetry Review, thinks it was a squandered opportunity. He puts the blame squarely on Alexander, saying that if you’re going to be the center of the universe, and be the spokesperson for poetry, why not write a great poem, not a forgettable one?

Here was an opportunity to show millions of people — millions of people — what an exciting thing poetry is. Look at what you gave them. Look at what you gave all those people who think poetry is dull, genteel, a form of little interest — a dead thing.

But I’m not convinced it was wasted, because I’m not convinced her poem could have made much of an impact from the outset. Even if her poem had been unbelievable, it would still have mostly fallen on deaf ears. I’m not judging Alexander or her poem or our culture’s receptivity to poetry; I’m observing a fundamental law of show business: Be careful what act you follow.

By the time Alexander took the podium, I’d stopped listening. Her poem came right after the new president’s speech. By then, I was emotionally spent. And I have no doubt many, many thousands of others were, too. If Alexander was going to push poetry forward into American consciousness, she’d probably need to knock our socks off before Obama, not after. As it is, she left poetry pretty much where she found it.

Fortunately, we have a president who knows how to turn a phrase. Maybe after four years of speeches — and he’s going to give a lot of them to save the economy — more people will disagree that poetry is “dull, genteel, a form of little interest.”

February 8, 2009 1:20 PM | | Comments (3)



I certainly heard and remember Joseph Lowery's benediction - because it was true, heartfelt, clever, appealing and it even rhymed! I didn't know about Alexander's political connections. Her poem was a dry, obtuse, dense academic exercise - just what we didn't need. A major disappointment.

While I will not argue the merits of the poem itself - in fact I thought many passages were a reflection on life which reminded us of the normalcy that remains in spite of the state of the country - what bothered me most was her delivery. The beauty of her lines got lost in the pauses between each word.

It's just as well you stopped listening. There wasn't much there. I heard the voice of the readers father, Clifford Alexander, former Secretary of the Army and former Chair of EEOC. I heard the voice of her brother, Mark, a senior advisor to the Obama campaign and transition member. I heard the voice of permanent Washington, not 'change', not a poet.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on February 8, 2009 1:20 PM.

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