Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.

To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each. (That’s the length of iambic pentameter, but she doesn’t use that effect.) The lines are grouped in tercets, with one lone line at the end. There are sentence breaks at the ends of many lines, and of most of the tercets. In other words, there’s a strong formal grid, achieved through means that were inaudible in her performance.

(And she uses the grid intricately: in

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

see how the four -ings are placed in the lines: near the beginning, at the end, near the end, and at the beginning.)

And the choice of words is timid, sometimes banal, starting right with the first line. There’s a certain amount of padding, as if to fill out lines — the doubling in “noise and bramble, thorn and din” is redundant. And the language is self-conscious, perhaps particularly in the way the text repeatedly proclaims itself a “praise song” rather than just praising.

But most importantly, the poem puts in view at once, in relation to one another, a number of serious thoughts on the occasion — on what it may mean, for many people, that for the first time a member of a minority group has taken our highest office. In crude and partial paraphrase:

  • Our ancestors suffered
  • which is a painful memory
  • but they suffered and labored for something;
  • Here we are at a great day
  • Let us move forward with love
  • so great that it will not efface that memory (“pre-empt grievance”) but encompass it.

As nearly everyone says, writing a poem for an inauguration, or any momentous official occasion, is a mug’s game — it’s almost impossible to do well. And surely everyone has a favorite exception. Mine is John Ashbery’s “Pyrography”, commissioned by the Department of the Interior for its bicentennial exhibition, “America 1976”. It’s a magnificently inclusive ramble, as sincerely kitschy as Rushmore (or at least North by Northwest).

Part of me, this week, wished the old surreal master (still writing at 81) had been given the chance instead. But I have to admit that Ashbery could never have done what Alexander did — to tell home truths in perspective.