Friday Musings

It’s been a stressful couple of days. One of our good friends was in a terrible car accident, so RJ has been on the phone a lot the past 48 hours. So far, the updates have been positive.

I couldn’t have said this better myself. Thank you.

But where is this personal venom coming from against our inaugural poet and poem? Are people in the music industry bitching that Obama should have picked Patti Labelle or Faith Hill or that guy from Coldplay? Are they up in arms at the selection of Yo Yo Ma? I kinda doubt it. This grotesque pettiness goes back to poets fighting over that tiny crumb of a pie. Poets, forget the fucking pie already! I promise you, it’s stale and flavorless. If you ever get a bite, you’ll still be as empty as your are now.

As for all this nonsense about this being Poetry’s big chance — um, no it wasn’t, it wasn’t supposed to be and get over your self-centered, personal profiteering selves. Elizabeth Alexander did not go up there to be a representative of poets. She accepted an invitation, a daunting and frightening honor that I cannot conceive of having the bravery to accept. Putting oneself and one’s poem out there, knowing full well the scrutiny both you and your poem will endure, most would shirk. When Alexander took the podium, momentarily paused before she read, when she looked out at that massive (departing) crowd, I wanted nothing more that to jump into my television and give her a hug.

I heard several different poets bemoan “Oh gee, now everyone is going to think that contemporary poetry is boring.” Well I hate to break it to you, everybody already thinks that and no poem or poet, no million dollar poetry foundation or advertisement in Good Housekeeping is ever going to change general opinion. People come to poetry, not the other way around. If you want to reach more people, study filmmaking or write TV sitcom scripts. When Diane Feinstein announced that next up was a poem, 1.5 million of the 2 million audience started high stepping it out of there, before Alexander spoke a single word. If the classical music came after the swearing in, most of those same people would have left then too. More probably would have stuck around to hear Aretha, cause she’s a celebrity and she sings songs you can dance to.

I apologize for posting such a huge link, but I really love this. Click on it to check out Reb Livingston’s blog.

Wednesday Musings

This is how I feel and what I’d like to be doing. For those of you who don’t know, that’s my dog, Kweli, and yes, he sleeps like a cat.


I’m sure when Elizabeth Alexander agreed to be the inaugural poet, she knew she’d be up for some criticism. Well, buck up Liz, because the claws have come out:

From the Seattle Post:

The problem is, by no stretch is her poem a poem at all. While as a stilted monologue it had a suggestion of lean appeal, far better than the greeting card goo Maya Angelou cranks out and insists on calling poetry, Alexander’s effort is the product of a limited imagination, an academic approach to rhythm and an anorexic understanding of imagery.

From The Guardian:

Even when writing for a public occasion and a vast audience, the poet should be able to renew language by being precise, surprising, unhackneyed. Otherwise, what is the point of such a commission? Alexander is a true people’s poet, but she has written better poems for the people than this one.

From the Baltimore Sun:

Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration day poem, “Praise Song for the Day”, has drawn praise — and sharp criticism — from Read Street readers. But there’s no denying it got everyone’s attention. Funny how a poet can live in relative obscurity and be launched to stardom by a few minutes in front of TV cameras.

From Times Online (UK):

Praise Song for the Day was unmemorable. How do I know that for sure? Why, because I can’t remember it. Two minutes after it was spoken I couldn’t remember it. Our columnist, David Baddiel, wondered whether he couldn’t spot the Secret Service agents hastily removing the bullet-proof screens as she spoke; oh, I suppose that’s going a little far. But only just.

If you missed Alexander’s reading yesterday, here it is.

Do I think it is the greatest poem ever written? No. But I would like to point out that prior to Alexander’s reading, many critics remarked at how impossible the task of of writing an inaugural poem is. I’m not making excuses for for Alexander, but it seems to me that people are criticizing the poem for the very same reason that a lot of Americans are going to embrace it. It was simplistic, it was prosy, but it was also image driven and easy to understand. For those who thought Alexander should have written a more formal verse, well, a majority of the American public isn’t going to know what a spondee or a ceasura is. Is this a separate problem? Perhaps. Am I slamming forms? No. I like forms. I try to do my best by them, but imagine you’re writing a poem that will be heard by 1 million plus people? I’m not sure any contemporary poet can imagine that, so while I feel some of the criticism is warranted, I honestly think some of it is sour grapes.

Has Alexander written better poems? Of course she has. Who said this was supposed to be the crowning jewel in her career? Remember, she was chosen. It isn’t like she raised her hand and said “Oooo! Pick me!” In fact, I think most poets would be flattered and then horrified at the prospect of what Alexander was asked to do. As far as I know poets don’t sit down and say, “Now I’m going to write the poem that I will be known for for the rest of my life.” Yet, for some reason people expect that Alexander was supposed to do this with her inaugural poem. This doesn’t seem fair.

Also, the comment about remembering an inaugural poem? I’d be surprised if many American’s remembered an inaugural poem. I’m a poet and I don’t remember any. The focus of the inauguration is not poetry, nor is it music, or worship. These are all mere vehicles for celebration, and what I think is more important is that poetry is still part of that celebration.

I think Frost said it best when he responded to JFK’s request to read at his inauguration:


Tuesday (Inauguration) Musings

Inaugural Poem January 20, 2009
Praise song for the day.
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ 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 someone 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 thy self.”
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than 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 preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

Elizabeth Alexander

I watched coverage (courtesy of streaming feed from the NY Times website) after my 9:30 class was over. I was lucky enough to catch Obama’s speech and Alexander’s reading, among other ceremonial proceedings. I am inspired and hopeful. I am also glad to see the end of George W. It is time for change.

“We have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world,
duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.”

This is a pretty neat feature.

Saturday (I’m done!) Musings

I am done with grading. I went in this morning to finish a couple of things and now I can get ready to head east for the holidays. Our Christmas/New Years is going to be a hectic one, but I’m looking forward to it. We’re heading to Erie the 22nd through the 26th. The 26th we’re heading to Pittsburgh and we’re leaving their the 31st to come back to Indy. The 1st we’re heading down to Murray for my defense, which is on the 2nd. Phew. Luckily, I don’t have to be back at school till Jan 6th.

A Yale University professor whose poetry is published by St. Paul’s Graywolf Press has been chosen to write and read an original poem at the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama. Elizabeth Alexander has published four collections of poetry, and her book “American Sublime” was a 2005 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2004, Alexander was a poetry mentor with the Loft.


I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, 'til
my face is creased and swollen,
'til my lips are dry and hot. I
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father's money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V's of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

Elizabeth Alexander