Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Recap (and the Road to a Better Poem)

Known as "occasional poems," inaugural poems seldom go well. Whether you're an English major or a straight-up illiterate, they come across as puzzling and largely forgettable. Doubtful that many people watched the ceremony and swearing-in, just to hear the inaugural poem. Poor inaugural poem. So under-appreciated. So overlooked.

A portion of the transcript of Elizabeth Alexander's poem, read at Tuesday's inauguration:

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." ...

... and so it goes, and there's even more, but everyone is sitting there, blinking, and asking, "What the hay is she talking about? Has anybody seen Bob Dole? He's usually at these things, isn't he? Could Nancy Reagan not make the trip? I thought for sure the Ford kids would be here. That Dan Quayle sure has aged well. What was Walter Mondale's wife's name again? I never can remember..."

This from Jim Fisher, posted on Salon.com:
The problem for poets is not the commission -- Milton's "Lycidas" and Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" are both immortal poetry commissions -- but the occasion, which fixes the poem with a public event. Once the function has passed, the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time. So let's dispense with this idea that poets can produce lasting poems for public events. It's unfair to the audience, discomposes the poet, and probably confirms the low opinion of poetry some listeners already hold.

Well said, Jim Fisher of Salon.com! Maybe a limerick would have been better received. An inaugural limerick? A real crowd-pleaser. Like this one:

We've elected a man who is black,
Poise and charm he does not lack.
His wife is so tall,
The country filled the National Mall,

And now he must save Freddie Mac.

Or, maybe this one:

There once was a senator from Illinois,
Whom this great country wanted to employ.
He applied for the job,
Attracted a huge mob,
A shiny black limo, he'll enjoy.

Or, how 'bout this one:

Our national debt is so high,
The simplest luxuries we cannot buy.
This economy left us bereft,
So we intentionally moved to the left,
The result is we elected this guy!

The next installment of Inauguration Recap: The letter GWB left in the desk drawer to Barack Obama.