Everyone’s got an opinion about the poem read yesterday, the vast majority of them (at least in print) seem to say it was too prosey for the occasion. There seems to be two schools of thought here: one, by people who have no investment or background in poetry: the fact that there was a poet at all shows Obama’s renewed focus on the arts as an instrument of change; and two, by those who hold the medium dear to their hearts: that the delivery and the poem itself constituted what the kids today call an “epic fail”.
I really feel for Alexander here. What a task, what a set of expectations. Sure, the poem wasn’t good, but it wasn’t THAT bad. It was mediocre and the victim of the day—and of following the world’s most eloquent leader. What was a servicable poem designed to be accessible to the widest number of people (ie, not alienate those who already fear poetry) is being pilloried as if it ruined hopes and dreams of the country.
But on the other hand, it kind of did, didn’t it? At least the part of the country that saw this as an opportunity to show people the nigh divine power of words with depth and resonance married to an occasion with dignity and significance. Is it excusable to fail here when someone like Derek Walcott so deftly nailed it with such power and skill it makes me want to emigrate?
I guess everyone’s thinking that if you were picked for this moment you were best suited to encapsulate the emotional and psychic state of the nation, of explaining us to us. And that’s not the case for most poets. Makes me think the poem should have been picked instead of the poet. If you’d seen them all laid out on paper and had recordings of the poets reading them to choose from, would anyone have chosen this poem? Given what else was written for the occasion, I suspect not.
Now, back to feeling sorry for Alexander. She did her best and it was competent, but not up to the moment.Â But having been the one chosen, she rose to the task and did what she could. Unfortunately, she over-thought things and tried to cater to a wide audience that was too cold and disinterested to hear her out, rather than catering to the moment. The whole thing felt like it was written by committee. She needed fire and brimstone, shock and awe, a seesaw between the personal and the universal, to break through to the crowd and the world. Instead she had people waiting for a bus. Perhaps, for some of the two million there, a reminder it was time to go home.