Wednesday, January 21, 2009

To the (many) Detractors of the Inaugural Poem

Words matter. My (poetic) summary of Obama's platform is just that--words matter. Remember when Hillary Clinton accused Obama of plagiarizing MA Governor Deval Patrick? This is not a new idea. I have been saying that words matter in my poetry for years now. And it is not that I think I wasn't listened to exactly, I just don't think anybody cared. Of course a poet would say that. But using words improperly has HUGE repercussions--and I am not talking about grammar. I use double negatives very happily. I ain't no snob. I am talking about meaning. I was in a group of friends--men and women, having drinks--when a straw pole was taken: who has ever said I love you in order to have sex? Several hands went up. That's messed up. But it is not just on a personal level that these things become extremely painful. When the government says there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then there turn out NOT to be weapons of mass destruction that creates suffering on a whole new scale. I like "Praise Song for the Day," the poem Elizabeth Alexander wrote and read at Obama's inauguration. I have yet to meet a poem I didn't like. I like some poems more than others, there are some poems I love, but poems are like people in that I can't think of one I hate. And this is the reason I am so convinced that poetry matters, just as I am convinced that people--and by extension the way we treat other people--matter. If I could read a poem and not find some value there, it would be a lot easier for me to dismiss poetry as a whole. I can't, and I won't. If you are waiting for the post where I trash something, it isn't going to happen. 

I haven't yet met anyone else who likes this poem. The comment under the You Tube video read: "DUUUUUUMB." (Actually, I am paraphrasing, the real comment had more Us). "Praise Song" isn't one of the poems I love, but here is why I think it is FANTASTIC: the poem works in order to be able to use adjectives. "Praise Song" is built on work thus it [re-]affirms the substantiality of language--the idea that you can't just throw words around. The first adjectives are careful: "wooden," "oil," "dirt." They are all also nouns. The poem is careful, unlike politicians, not to suggest anything it can't make material. At first only "words" are assigned adjectives that are not also nouns. Words are "spiny" and "smooth." These adjectives serve not to increase the ethereal nature of words, but to make words tactile. Finally we get to, "Say it plain." Alexander didn't write "Say it plainly" which would have been more correct, she changed the adverb "plainly" to an adjective "plain" which is more natural. This opens the poem up to the possibility of adjectives. Adjectives are necessary, but they have to be "plain" and sturdy, like trustworthy furniture.  

Then we get the pivotal line: "What if the mightiest word is love?" The most important word in this sentence is not "love" but "mightiest." The weight falls on the adjective. This statement would be meaningless if you didn't first believe in the solidity of the poet's adjectives. This line is built on previous toil just as the Unites States is built on the work of the poem's subjects, the "many" (many is a pronoun here, not an adjective as it refers to actual people) who have died for this day. Alexander leaves us with "today's sharp sparkle." Two adjectives make up the thing--but it isn't a thing really. The closest analogy is just "this winter air." It's the future and it's a promise: "any thing can be made, any sentence begun." Alexander is careful to separate "any" and "thing." Anything is ethereal. Any thing is all encompassing and real. Everyone has been lied to. Promises are easy and meaningless. What is difficult and meaningful is convincing someone who has been lied to over and over that you intend to keep your promise, that any future failing on your part with be unanticipated and struggled against. "Praise Song" does this. Solid poem.

No comments:

Post a Comment