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Adam Kirsch On Elizabeth Alexander's Bureaucratic Verse

There was inevitably something imperial about the inauguration today: the praetorian pomp, the Capitoline backdrop, the giant crowds, all seemed more redolent of Caesar than George Washington. Even President Obama's speech, for all its predictable poeticizing about America, was not addressed simply to Americans; it was a message urbi et orbi, with sections clearly meant for the ears of Europeans, Africans, and "the Muslim world." (If we were Romans, however, we would have been much more troubled by the bad omen of Chief Justice Roberts and Obama stumbling over the words of the oath of office; for the Romans, a ritual was a ritual, and had to be done right.)

It was oddly heartening, then, to see how completely Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day," (here's the full text) failed to live up to the standard of public, official verse in which the Romans excelled. When Horace produced his Carmen Saeculare at the command of the Emperor Augustus, as part of the festivities for the Secular Games in 17 B.C., he was happily placing his gifts at the service of the new imperial regime, much as Virgil did when he wrote the Aeneid. So, too, with the Elizabethan poets, who poured their lyrics and masques at the feet of Gloriana. In a monarchy, there is no shame for a poet, or for anyone else, in being the monarch's servant.

In our democratic age, however, poets have always had scruples about exalting leaders in verse. Since the French Revolution, there have been great public poems in English, but almost no great official poems. For modern lyric poets, whose first obligation is to the truth of their own experience, it has only been possible to write well on public themes when the public intersects, or interferes, with that experience--when history usurps privacy. So Wordsworth in 1803, expecting the Grande Armee to land in Kent at any moment, struggled to balance his grievances against England with his fears of France:

England! all nations in this charge agree:

But worse, more ignorant in love and hate,                 

Far--far more abject, is thine Enemy:

Therefore the wise pray for thee, though the freight

Of thy offences be a heavy weight:

Oh grief that Earth's best hopes rest all with Thee!

Likewise, in 1967, Robert Lowell wrote "Waking Early Sunday Morning" out of indignation at what President Johnson and the Vietnam War were making of America:

Hammering military splendor,?

top-heavy Goliath in full armor -

?little redemption in the mass?

liquidations of their brass,?

elephant and phalanx moving?

with the times and still improving,?

when that kingdom hit the crash:?

a million foreskins stacked like trash.

Such poems honor the public by bringing to bear on it the poet's private grief and aspiration. The contemporary poet who set out to write an official occasional poem, on the other hand, 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. There was an extraordinary burden of expectation attached to Alexander's poem; I don't recall Maya Angelou or Miller Williams, the poets who read at Bill Clinton's inaugurations, getting the kind of attention that Alexander received in the last few weeks. The reason, I think, is that Obama's inauguration was just the kind of event that might inspire genuine poetry: it was that rare moment when the public intersected with the private for good instead of evil. And of course, Obama himself has often been cast as a "poetic" figure, thanks to his eloquence and the appeal of his image. Last January, E.J. Dionne wrote that Obama represented poetry to Hillary Clinton's prose, a contrast that became a standard trope of the campaign.

Alexander was an inevitable choice to be Obama's laureate. Like Obama, Alexander is an establishment figure-a professor at Yale, a Pulitzer Prize finalist--who is very conscious of the ways she does not fit the usual establishment image--she is a black woman in a field once dominated by white men. Like him, too, she has challenged the establishment by joining it, rather than fighting it. Her best poems--especially in her first, reputation-making book, The Venus Hottentot--do not accept that there is an antagonism between African-American "folk" culture and "high" culture. She has written admiringly about figures like Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, and Romare Bearden, who fused the two, creating something new and distinctively American. "Ralph Ellison's house is underground/next door to my house," she writes in her most recent book, American Sublime

Yet Alexander also suffers, as Ellison came to, from excessive self-consciousness about her role as spokesman and example. As she writes in "Ars Poetica #92: Marcus Garvey on Elocution":

To realize I was trained for this,

Expected to speak out, to speak well.

To realize, my family believed

I would have words for others.

But poetry is a matter of having your own words, not of having words for others; and 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. This weakness is precisely what made her a perfect, an all too perfect, choice for inaugural poet. Indeed, in "Ars Poetica #1,002: Rally," published in 2005 when Barack Obama was still just a first-year Senator from Illinois, she already imagines herself lecturing a crowd with inspirational banalities:

I dreamed a pronouncement

about poetry and peace.

"People are violent,"

I said through the megaphone

on the quintessentially

frigid Saturday

to the rabble stretching

all the way up First.

"People do violence

unto each other

and unto the earth

and unto its creatures.

Poetry," I shouted, "Poetry,"

I screamed, "Poetry

changes none of that

by what it says

or how it says, none.

But a poem is a living thing

made by living creatures...

and as life

it is all that can stand

up to violence."

This poem, written for a book and not for an inauguration, is already public in the worst sense--inauthentic, bureaucratic, rhetorical. So it was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem today with a clich