In which I like Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem

Elizabeth Alexander’s decision to deliver the inaugural poem in “poetry reading voice,” with careful little pauses to indicate line breaks, was a bad mistake — after Obama’s smooth, long lines, she sounded like Rain Man, or a William Shatner impersonator, or Rain Man impersonating William Shatner. But I thought the poem itself, “Praise Song For The Day,” was great.

I’m not sure anyone else thought so. Monica praised the poem very faintly. Adam Kirsch called it “bureaucratic,” which he meant as an insult. But is it? Some things are made to happen by heroic leaders. But others, equally important, get done by thousands of people in separate rooms, none with a global view, each one carrying out a small task thoughtfully and by the book. Poetry isn’t a thing of the latter kind, but poetry has to recognize that there are such things, and that they matter. As must the President. Steve Burt made this point in verse.

Back to Kirsch,who labels the opening

Each day we go about our business

as cliche, fairly — but seems to miss that the following lines

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

stroll around the different aspects of the word “about,” poking at it, so that the words of the first line, or at least the word “about,” retroactively re-activate inside their dead phrase.

Alexander’s not afraid to tweak Obama a bit:

A farmer considers the changing sky.

reminding us (and him!) that “change,” too, is a real word, not just a slogan, and it might mean you’re about to lose your crop. And then this, my favorite part:

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.

“Picked the cotton and the lettuce” is a graceful way of getting both 19th century African slaves and contemporary migrant farmers from Latin America into a single, eight-syllable frame. You can’t help comparing it with Maya Angelou’s dreary ethnocatalogue: “THE BLACK, THE JEW, THE HINDOO, THE CROAT….” I won’t defend “brick by brick” — glittering edifices are steel and glass office towers, not brick buildings. But the permeation of the workers through the building walls (with an implicit generation shift — the fathers are construction workers, the children disperse through the class structure, some becoming janitors and others deskworkers) is deft as hell — and she caps it off with the weird scrambly rhyme of “edifices” and “inside of,” and a cheeky sentence-ending preposition which seems to talk back — but respectfully! — to the schoolteacher five stanzas previous. Just as she talked back to the new President when she brought up the changing sky.

A lot is getting done in the rooms of this poem, piece by piece and without flourishes. It’s bureaucratic in the best way.

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4 thoughts on “In which I like Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem

  1. Lisa Carbone says:


    I share the same sentiments…the poem was brave, and appropriate for the occasion. Strangely, your favorite lines were my favorites too. I agree also with what you said about the delivery. I suddenly felt I was back at school during her reading…but I was delighted ot have heard it.


  2. nichole says:

    I liked it too.

    …for every hand-lettered sign,
    the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

    struck me. It feels so real, so – this is how ends get met. What kind of sign? Is it a panhandler’s? Or for a kid’s lemonade stand? Is it the family budget or a budding entrepreneur’s plan?

  3. barry orton says:

    I thought it was a terrific poem, and liked the delivery as well. If you closed your eyes and listened to her, rather than watching the TV pictures, it seemed stronger. When she finished, I spontaneously just said: “Wow.” Of course, Rev Lowery delivered a topper, poetry slam-style.

  4. Jessica says:

    I agree about the delivery. It really ruined the poem for me, and sounded like someone reading Shakespeare who has no sense of what the actual words mean. It deadened it and dissected it completely. But I also agree that the poem itself had some truly lovely moments. Just goes to show that just because you can write doesn’t mean you can read…

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