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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Poetry

Elizabeth Alexander is the American poet who was chosen to solemnize the Presidential Inauguration. A spokesman for President Obama called her "incredibly gifted." Before an estimated crowd of 2 million people, she delivered her poem, composed for the event, entitled Praise Song For The Day.

Jim Fisher, of Salon.com, predicted Ms. Alexander would be “skillful in tone, bold in emotion, deeply rhythmic in delivery.” Unfortunately, the honored poet was none of these things. She spoke every word as if it stood alone, enunciated every syllable as if speaking to a group of preschoolers. What might have been a moving work turned out to be an exercise in proper speaking.

More than anything, a poem is about rhythm. Her delivery was devoid of rhythm. Instead of allowing us to feel the power of her words, we were forced to consider each one of them on its own merits. She read like a conceited poet who believes each one of her words is golden. She failed to allow that only taken together, as a single poem, not as a string of 336 words, did her writing have meaning.

She would have done well to hire a professional speaker.

Compare her delivery to that of Reverend Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who was chosen to give the invocation. He did not set out to compose a poem, yet the prayer he read to the crowd was poetry. His prose had rhythm. He did not assume his audience consisted of preschoolers who needed to be presented with each word one by one. His words flowed together to form a coherent whole, giving his message precedence over his words.

To some, this inaugural poem sent a signal that poetry would resume its formerly important role in celebrating special events. Sadly, Ms. Alexander instead embarrassed herself today, and showed millions of people just how dry and boring poems can be. Rev. Warren showed a better part of religion: the soaring poetry of its language.