Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Poem.


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 morethan 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.

This inauguration poem by Elizabeth Alexander has produced a divided response among readers and hearers. Some responses reflect nothing more than ignorance: it is a poor poem because it doesn’t rhyme; it is nothing more than mediocre prose; it is plain shit…Such comments do not reflect on the poem, merely on the prejudice and illiteracy of the commentators.

Firstly, it has to be said that the poem is a poem. It is not prose. Each idea is confined into a three line stanza, except at lines 25-30 where the poem relaxes into a six line structure. The poem is tautly constructed and in that pressure exists the tension of the occasion.

The first line is not a surprising opening. It is a flat, cliché. The following lines question the simplicity. The reader’s eye walks, is pulled to the extremity of a line and is then caught, on the turn, with “eyes”. The poetry works through a fine mimetic structure, which focuses on how we see, but do not see. In daily attention, there is inattention.

In the following stanza, the theme of isolation is developed. Again, in a simple image pattern of ABBA: noise, bramble, (bramble) thorn, din (noise), the mind is wrong-footed, unbalanced and thrown towards a precise image “each/one of our ancestors on our tongues.” Instead of babble, the reader is given a scrabbling of the word: “bramble”, knotted and prickly utterances, and instead of babel comes tongues that speak of history, with the guidance of ancestral memory.

At this point, the poem could deepen and run away with itself, but Elizabeth Alexander pulls it back, back to the commonplace, for commonality matters: it is the theme of Obama’s new America. Lines 9-15 embrace America, as Whitman did, and the ordinary is celebrated.
The images of “stitching”, “darning”. “hole”, “patching” announce what must be done to “repair” America. And in those humble acts lie the images of subversion, the place of women in history, the other weave, the acts that have made the “uniform”, the historical terrain of America.

The poem lives through small details. So, as the transition begins from mending to music and how it has played its role in resistance and healing, there comes a momentary musical rhyme: “somewhere” catches “ repair”, but the song is deflected into a different kind of concord. America is glimpsed through its variety of sound, images that conjure stratas of society. Lines 13-15 could slip into rhetoric. The heavy meaning, however, is left to direct images and key words: “wait”, “changing”, “Begin”. Like children starting a test, America waits to be tested and counted once more.

Briefly, the poem develops through a well-known conceptual metaphor, LIFE IS A ROADWAY, and it grows towards mysticism, “we cannot yet see.” And it is pulled back again into the realm of common speech: “Say it plain”, with a gentle pun on “plain” as the roads and plains of America, the flatness of land, becomes the flatness and plainness of speech.

“That many have died for this day” opens an elegiac note, yet one so directly expressed that sacrifice, survival and celebration co-exist in a harmonious balance.

As the poem draws towards its conclusion, it pin-points the core of Obama’s address.

…the time has come to set aside childish things…
As we consider the road that unfolds before us…

The context, here, is Corinthians 13, and the need to grow through love. The poem began by varying the words of Corinthians 13: speech is nothing but noise and din without love. At its close, the poem widens into a vision of love, a love that makes people speak truth. AMOR:ROMA. Civilization is the reflection of love. (Pound out of Dante). And the light of love is caught in the final images: “today’s sharp sparkle” scintillates through its crisp sound. Love becomes a quality of the cutting day, “this winter air”. And the poem closes, not with redundant repetition as some have claimed, but variation and pendency. “On the brink” lifts the mind prophetically to a mountain of vision, to a suggestion of where America has come: disaster. This is then varied into “On the brim” which suggests emotion almost too great to control, but which must be controlled. Then this is transformed to “On the cusp” which picks up the point of the pencil (line 15). This day is ultimately seen as a pointed day, a point for point making, and transition.

Elizabeth’s Alexander’s verse is not “bureaucratic” poetry. It is finely judged verse, walking its way between common speech and uncommon echoes. The consensus of opinion is that the poem let-down the political event. It did not. The poem strikes a modest note. It honours its President, without being sycophantic. It varies his vision, yet offers its own, for as HD acknowledged, the poetic role is never bureaucratic, never administrative: it creates and legislates. The poem remembers that inauguration is connected to augury-- it is a wise reading of the signs. And praise be to it, for it is "hand-lettered" carefully, with craft and skill.


Id it is said...

A remarkable analysis of the piece!
Alexander has captured the Obama moment in her rendition. The ordinariness of the events cited and the leisurely pace of the birds eye view in the poem has the grassroots feel that has been the Obama trademark throughout the campaign.
With your permission I'm going to share this analysis with fellow educators who have discussed this piece to death! Did I mention that I see the poem exactly the way you do, but I could never have done such a splendid job of explaining it like you have!

Eshuneutics said...

Dear id it is. Often, as a non-American I do not see first-hand. But I read this, like you, as a bird-eye poem, a sort of sweep across America. Yet, the result is not a blur. I see this as a poem, by an academic, with the common touch-- it reaches out through its simplicity (which is also deceptive: the poem is subtle and allusive). The poem, to me, as you say, has the Obama trademark, but I read it objectively, not knowing the emotions that go with that trademark. Perhaps, because I am so removed--this side of the Pond--I read a poem, then an occasion. I am relieved that you see the poem as I do...I do seem to be the dissenting voice! I'd love you to argue my view with your "fellow educators", just to see th result, so please feel free to do so. Kindest wishes.

iGwatala said...

Thank you for this.

This is my first time on your blog (I think) and of reading the whole text of this poem, although I have been (un)fortunate to have been first exposed to the opinions of "experts" who have knocked the poem and the poet silly for the writing and, most importantly, for her performance of the poem on the Inauguration day.

The poem as text is beautiful, perhaps even more so because it seeks not to follow "expected" formats of grand and "deep" sounding vocabulary. The simpleness of the prose says much more, and reaches farther than would perhaps else. I'm non American too, but that doesn't even come to play in appreciation of poetry, and taste. I believe that the president was pleased with the tone and theme of the poetry performance. It was no "praise" song at all. But it is surely reflective of the direction for which Obama himself stands.

Good work.

JD said...

Bravo, Eshu! I loved your analysis of Alexander's poem. I've listened all kinds of talk about it, but this is by far the best I have seen.


Eshuneutics said...

Greetings iGwatala. I'm glad you visited and have read the links to the poem on your blog. Very interesting. The anti-review makes me smile. The critic was going to do poetics had she continued in grad school...oh, so she didn't then! And she would have done something on modern poetics. But alas, she didnt! Nothing like what you didn't do to make you an expert. Intentions make bad critics. I enjoyed reading your blog. Best wishes.

Eshuneutics said...

Hello, JD. I hope you are well. I think that there is something odd in the approach to the poem. People do not want Obama to be Clinton, yet they do want Alexander to be Angelou. Why? I suspect that many would have been happy with a sterotypical praise-song, with Alexander praising her African roots. She had the courage not to do that, but to write as a poet...without trace of race, class, gender. I think you will understand what I mean by that. This freedom in itself marks the democracy she wants to praise.

JD said...

...People do not want Obama to be Clinton, yet they do want Alexander to be Angelou...

This is so true! I have never thought of it from that angle before. I watched the inauguration on TV, and I enjoyed the poem... I wondered why it generated so much debate, afterward!


Onyeka Nwelue said...

I like this piece. Teju Cole had trashed Alexander's poem in NEXT newspaper, that's in his column. I don't know what the problem is actually. I think people, mostly, Nigerians want some Soyinka poems to still abrade our poems. We are tired of being bombarded with heavy stuff.

This is one thing Teju Cole needs to read.

Eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eshuneutics said...

I haven't seen the Cole piece. (I don't find him very interesting as a poet). There are many opinions about the poem, which is fine, as long as they are opinions based on reading the poem.