Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inaugural Poem

"We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider."

-- Elizabeth Alexander, Inaugural Poem, January 20th, 2009

Today, plenty of pundits, analysts, and everyday folks around the watercooler are talking about Obama's inaugural address. Someone, however, ought to talk about the inaugural poem read by Elizabeth Alexander that immediately followed Obama's speech (so at WWADY we'll gladly step up).

If you missed it (or if you want to hear it again), you can listen to the poem below:

This poem seems to be an exploration of words and their power -- how you and I and everyone interact through words, how words shape our relationships and perceptions. (Is it a coincidence that Alexander pointed out the power of words when Obama has been occasionally criticized as "just another good speaker"?)

The poem examines the power of not only the small things we say to each other (i.e., "take out your pencils") and not only of the creeds we live by (i.e., "first do no harm, or take no more than you need") but also, and more optimistically, of the possibilities that emerge when we express love (i.e., "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.")

Because Alexander knows that "anything can be made, any sentence begun," using words to express love might be the noblest, best use for them, and perhaps we should all "[walk] forward in that light."

Now, the idea that expressing love is "mighty" may not be the most original thought, but all in all, the messages about language and its power as well as love and its power seemed particularly fitting given the setting.

If you'd like to see a complete transcript of the inaugural poem, The New York Times published it here.

And incidentally, Elizabeth Alexander has published five books of poetry, and many of her poems can be read at her website. If you visit her site, be sure to read "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe" - a personal favorite.

Now it's your turn. What are your thoughts on Alexander's poem? Do you have a favorite line or idea? A favorite phrase?

Let the dialogue begin.

(NOTE: If you're using Internet Explorer, I'm having a problem with comments. Click the title of this post above or here -- "The Inaugural Poem" -- and you'll be able to see the comments area below the post. Sorry, and I'll figure this out ASAP.)


Suzy said...

Beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing the video!

Jane @ What About Mom? said...

I'm reading the transcript, because I did not enjoy the recitation yesterday. President Obama's speech was masterful, and I really enjoyed the benediction by Rev. Wright -- enough that I wished for a few moments that we were more into those rhythms and that "amen and amen and amen" in the church I attend.

But I found the Praise Song awkward. Perhaps Ms. Alexander was nervous or is just not a great speaker, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's that poetry often sounds self-consciously self-important or something. (And I confess I don't go to many poetry readings currently, so I'm comparing this to the Whitman and Thomas and Dickinson that I love so well).

Speaking of Whitman, though, I thought it was quite (purposefully) reminiscent of his Songs.

And honestly (here is where my contemporary knowledge lack is glaringly obvious), I prefer more uniformity of meter and form.

Kim said...

I loved the poem!

Professor Josh said...


I agree that the performance of the poem falls a little flat (but I embedded a YouTube video - how cool is that for a new blogger?). In fact, when I heard the reading yesterday my first thought was, "What the heck was that?" Only after seeing the transcript in the NYT this morning did the ideas about words and love begin to grow on me.

Perhaps poets can't stop at least a hint of arrogance from seeping out during a public reading. In that way, maybe they're a bit like those children who endlessly cry out, "Look what I made! Look what I can do!" (Of course, I don't personally know any children like this, but I've heard they exist.)

Do you remember when we both took a class in college from Phil Snyder? We studied Dylan Thomas and Dr. Snyder played a recording of Thomas reading "Poem in October." While I'd enjoyed the poem in my personal study before class, after hearing Thomas read it aloud, I could only think, "Dylan Thomas - what a pompous windbag." Today, my reading of that poem is still tainted by the memory of Thomas' stuffy inflections and slow-moving pronunciations.

My own students had the same experience last semester when I played them a recording of e.e. cummings reading "next to of course god america i." What was originally a playful poem in their minds became ruined by cummings' self-important reading.

Perhaps poetry is only better read aloud when its read with humility?

Thanks for your comment. We new bloggers need all the encouragement we can get.

Jane @ What About Mom? said...

Of course I remember that class (Snyder was one of my favorites) and funny, I do remember that reading, and yes, it was pompous, but he had a cool accent, so that redeemed it for me to some degree. (British-type people always sound so smart, eh?)

I think the idea for this blog is fantastic. I am too enamored of my contemporary trashy novels and my musty classics.

Scott W. Galer said...

I suppose it is simply due to my own personal anthologizing--who I read, whose politics I appreciate, the way I feel about the world; but for me Alexander's poem was another perfect square in this new socio-political patchwork I feel we're on the cusp of. Just this week I asked my students to consider Thomas Friedman's ideas (from "The World is Flat") on the importance of cultivating a "positive imagination" and "exporting hope and not fear," and President Obama's inclusive and embracing remarks on Tuesday. The whole feel of public rhetoric seems to be changing. This gives me great hope for the future.

Professor Josh said...


I agree completely. Rhetoric's stock is going up, and this can only be good for us language lovers. It means (I hope) that we'll see a broader awarness of words and their power and a cognizance of polished language and its influence. It's an excitiing world.

Kate said...
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