Barack Obama's inauguration will probably stand out as one of the highlights of the whole of 2009. You may say I'm jumping the gun on that one, but I'm gonna call it.
There were lots of memorable moments: the fudging up of the vows, Rev. Joseph Lowery getting all fancy-like while saying the names Malia and Sasha, and a performance of a new John Williams piece by quite the multi-racial quartet that was later outed as the orchestral version of a lip-synch. Tsk, tsk.
There were also a number of poets and poetry enthusiasts paying attention to Elizabeth Alexander's poem, “Praise Song for the Day” (text available here
care of the New York Times). Here are a few local writers' takes on the poem.
Dana Levin, chair of the College of Santa Fe's Creative Writing program, author of In the Surgical Theater (1999) and Wedding Day (2005), via email:
“Poem: eh. But whaddya gonna do, really, in such a situation?
Writer to writer, I liked Obama's hand/fist construction best:
‘To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.'”
David Shodo Portolano, aka The Lone Monk, poet and political thinker extraordinaire (http://www.myspace.com/thelonemonk), who also provided us with a poem for the occasion, via email:
“poem was lame, so was recitation of it
wasn't convincing or moving- weak
now on the other hand Rev. Lowery's
‘Black told not to get back..'
that was moving
(btw my son was in day-care and they listened
on the radio and he shouted ‘Power To The People')
Free At Last!!!
wow we won
got a new leader
knows the Bhagavad Gita
and the Ramayana
Hanuman the Monkey God
is his lucky charm
bright light radiates
emanates from his
SOUL alma would
give my life for
WE have been to
the mountain top
better step up
has shown that
like to put out contracts
on men of peace”
Mark Turcotte, visiting native writer at IAIA, author of The Feathered Heart (1998) and Exploding Chippewas (2002), over the phone:
"I knew Elizabeth in Chicago, so I'm prone to be gentle. I think occasional poems are an impossible task, so I'm sympathetic in that sense, because you're being asked to do your art with an unspoken caveat that you're not really going to express yourself. Speak, but be careful how you speak.
"I know her work well enough to know that this was a little pulled-in from what she often does... I don't think she's deserving the really sharp criticism she's getting, and I also don't think it was worthy of a lot of high praise. I've heard her read a few times, and again: it was freezing cold, and she never expected to read to a million people, so her delivery didn't help... If she spoke to poets, she'd be called elitist – but when she tones it down, it becomes simple and cliché."
Gabe Gomez, Director of PR & Marketing at SWAIA, author of The Outer Bands (2007), occasional SFR contributor, via Facebook:
"I suppose anything in political theatre is easy sport, but I can't think of anything worse for a poet than following Barack Obama's Inaugural Speech. It's difficult enough for poets to engage with an audience under normal circumstances, but Elizabeth Alexander never had a chance.
"Still, this is one of the few opportunities for many Americans to hear a poem being read aloud (especially under extraordinary circumstances), and her banal observations compounded by her transparent language are something we have all had enough of from the last administration."
Zoë Etkin, student of Creative Writing at the College of Santa Fe, editor-in-chief of CSF's literary magazine Glyph, via Facebook:
"I thought the language was pretty pedestrian... not very vibrant, or enlivened, nor was her reading of it. Of course, I am sure the task of writing an inaugural poem is extremely daunting, but I was left feeling less than wowed by it. I cannot reference anything specific, which means none of the lines really stood out to me. It's a hard task, and following Barack Obama is difficult--he's just so dynamic! I feel the poem could have been shortened in order to get the most out of the language--and that the reading of it could have been a bit more enlivened."