I have wanted for some days to write a few of many thoughts about the inauguration poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander; but I have been busy with life here in Cyprus.
My definition of poetry is “the distillation of language.”
Robert Frost said, “A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom.” Michael J. Bugeja said that every poem should have an epiphany. And Billy Collins said we should “take a poem and hold it to the light, like a color slide… ”
The 2009 inaugural poem did not pass these simple tests for me offered by true and tested poets.
Everyone who loves language–and you don’t need to be a poet to adore it–knows that not every verse of rhyme or rhythm needs to pass all these tests at once. Sometimes the right words in the right order amount to simple delight–something for children to tantalize their growing taste buds for the beauty and nuance of language, like:
Hey diddle diddle,
the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon,
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
It accomplishes what it starts out to do: as the words roll into the air, they prime the imaginations of children with creative, colorful images. Children begin to learn the vast potential of letters and the pictures they produce.
I think this forever favorite poem by Robert Frost is the perfect example of delightful profundity.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Contemporary Poet Laureate, Billy Collins’, Velocity is also sheer delight and fraught with meaning.
I could show example after example of good poetry, sometimes great poetry that pass these simple tests of delightful wisdom.
The title of the inaugural poem is the best part of the piece; but after reading it, there is a great let down. There is not a hint of praise, or song, or music, in the piece. There is no epiphany or wisdom. It is a downer, revisiting the old themes of African American injustice and burden.
It tastes like “porridge in the pot, nine days old.”
Poetry should nourish the soul and spirit, take the reader to flight with lofty words and even loftier meaning. The poem is glib and comes across like a piece of a deadwood branch washed up on a polluted shoreline.
And “what if love is the mightiest word?” The kind of love that leads not to “pre-empt grievance?”
Yes, the injustices for African Americans have been vast and shameful. And it is love that covers a multitude of sins. Can these injustices be healed and absolved in “today’s sharp sparkle, the winter air” of endless possiblitybrought about by the leadership of one man alone?
Has one man brought about the right atmosphere for healing and reconciliation to America’s racial wounds? Can he right all the wrongs of past governments and histories? Can one man bear such a load?
The world will know before the end of four years “in the sharp sparkle of winter air,” in the unknowable events of tomorrow how this one man executes government, mercy, protection, and love.
How will this one man accomplish his task… ?
We will take this poem and “hold it to the light, like a color slide” and we will see not in “the sharp sparkle” of today’s winter, or the lime light of high-powered transition, rather the search light of history in the face of eternity.
Three days into his presidency, I am already grieved at his rapid choices.
Right now while America celebrates, I weep, I weep the sound of rain.