First, I agree with the masses and disagree with Salon. Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” wasn’t great, but the delivery was terrible. I was willing to entertain the idea that Alexander was trying to estrange the language, and do something with poetic meter in the delivery, but she’s not. The reading is actually deeply conventional, even if that convention is “open mic night.” The fact that the delivery was less than perfect is actually, on its own, not that much of a criticism. Many poets are not performers. Many poems work better on the page than in person. (And the opposite is often true as well. I had a discussion over beers recently as to the merits of slam poetry, which I defended, even if when I was an editor I didn’t find much to put on the page.)
The NYT describes their text of the poem as coming from a transcript service, so my inclination is to treat it as a record of the verbal poem and not the author’s specific text. It’s a strange transcript, though. There are no less than five semicolons, and while my experience with Alexander’s writing is less than extensive, I have yet to find a poem where Alexander uses a semicolon more than once in a single poem.
I have a less-than-stellar reading. I have a tentative text. I am left with only the words.
There seems to be a broad sense that “Take out your pencils. Begin.” is the best moment in the poem, and I would tend to agree. I initially wanted to put a colon between “pencils” and “begin,” even though I figured that a period was probably intended. I actually want to put a line break there now. "Begin" is powerful enough to stand on its own, and is the best single-word summation of the spirit of the inauguration.
The "pencils" line follows a section written in the present participle:
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.
This is followed by a move to the present simple:
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky;
The present participle is an active tense, and this sense of activity was a good fit for the inauguration, the gesture of which was the movement from potential to realization—“(yes,) we can [do]” to “we are doing.” The present simple tense is much more passive, and this is emphasized by the verbs themselves: “wait,” “considers.”
The clause following the first semicolon in the NYT transcription, however, is an imperative, a command, a call to action. It is a powerful follow-up to the continuing action of the present participle. It is organization, direction, and it would be better without the more passive present simple passages.
up a hem, darning
a hole in a
patching a tire,
the things in need of
to make music somewhere
a pair of wooden
spoons on an oil drum
A teacher says
take out your pencils
I want to be nitpicky with the rest of the poem, but the violence I’ve done at this point suggests that there’s really little else I can say responsibly without the poet’s actual line, in the absence of which I have inflicted my own. I’m not satisfied with the image of words as being “spiny or smooth.” The invocation of various credos—the golden rule, the physician’s primum non nocere—is shallowly done. There’s even a dangling preposition, and I was waiting for her to start talking about chickens when she mentioned “others who said, ‘I need to see what's on the other side.’” And what if the mightiest word is love? Don’t leave us hanging! Twist that cliché!
There is good news. I’m actually much more impressed with the poetry Alexander makes available on her official web site. And she even seems to address some of my most petty complaints:
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
It's an impossible task to write a poem for an event like this, and if Alexander's attempt was less than perfect it in no way diminishes the interest and power of her other writing. I would love to see the poet's actual line in this work, and I would love to see whether she writes a second draft.