Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yes, but did you like the poem, or the fact that there was a poem?

Randy Malamud, from Georgia State University, has a more positive take on Alexander's poem and reading, although by "reading" I mean the fact that a poem was read at the inauguration as opposed to Alexander's delivery.

I find it interesting that Malamud spends a good amount of time on the same images I do, and he makes a good observation on the nature of the work described in the present participle section:

There are lots of lines and devices that I find inspired: "A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin." I like the way Alexander here parallels the incredibly difficult challenge Obama confronts today and the smaller challenges we all faced every time we took a test. It's as if she's saying: Just as we have all done that, so he (and we) can do this, too.

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

In those lines, Alexander delicately conveys how profoundly broken American society has become, what a mess President George W. Bush has left his successor, but she chooses the quiet metaphor over the caustic political accusation, making this poem more unifying (as befits a "praise song") than partisan.

Perhaps even better, Malamud appears to have access to Alexander's actual line breaks for the whole poem, which he includes.


A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration
By Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
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.

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

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need.
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 pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn. A chapbook edition of "Praise Song for the Day" will be published on February 6.

(Via the Chronicle, subscription required)

Update, 10:33pm: Thanks to Randy Malamud for information on Alexander's use of italics in lines 15 and 34-36 of the printed version of the poem.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gavin -- Randy Malamud here. I appreciate your close attention to the poem's appearance, structure, lineation, etc. I agree with you that this is a tremendously important aspect of a poem, and in all the voluminous discussion I've seen in the press and in blogs, people have been very sloppy about finding and discussing an *accurate* text. The one that's published along with my review in the Chronicle came from Alexander's publishers, Graywolf Press. I had arranged with them in advance to get an authoritative text of the poem for my piece. The stanzas (& single last line) are, obviously, important formal elements, & give the poem a sense of balance that the silly prose-renderings (on the NYTimes website, even!) miss. Also, what you're missing from the version you cut and pasted -- probably because the formatting was lost -- is that several of her phrases are italicized: 'Take out your pencils. Begin.' and the three 'mottoes' (first do no harm, etc.) toward the end; that's important too to the visual appearance of the poem, and the sense of borrowed words.

Gavin said...

Hi Randy! Thanks for the comment and the formatting information.

In my first draft of my post, I actually tried to argue in support of the assumption that the NYT's transcription was actually the author's version of the poem based on the idiosyncrasies of semicolon use. Fortunately (for me), I dug up some of Alexander's work before posting, and saw that the semicolons were in fact an indication that the transcription was not authoritative.

Fortunate as well because the search led me to more of Alexander's work. :-)